You Have Died of Dysentery:

The Making of the Oregon Trail

Introduction

The Oregon Trail is arguably the most famous educational computer software game ever created. For several years in the 1980s, it was the most commonly found software program in the schools of the United States and Canada – as well as being quite popular in the home market.

Even today, references to the game can be found throughout popular culture. For example, the phrase “You have died of dysentery” appears in all sorts of unlikely places, such as on T-shirts. While this phrase is perhaps the most famous meme to have originated from the game, there are many other references – such as a tiny image of an ox pulling a covered wagon – that are also commonly encountered.

The game has a long history, dating back to its original invention on a timeshare computer system by Don Rawitsch and two colleagues in 1971. But when people make nostalgic references to The Oregon Trail that they knew back in the 1980s or early 1990s, they are usually thinking of the product that was released in 1985, originally on the Apple II, but soon converted to the IBM, Commodore, and other personal computers. This 1985 version was substantially different – and much more elaborate – than the earlier versions of the game. Virtually all of the famous Oregon Trail memes originated with the 1985 Apple II version. (For more examples of Oregon Trail memes, see Appendix 1.) Nearly every website, blog, or magazine article that that mentions the “original” Oregon Trail game is actually illustrated with screen captures from the 1985 game. Until quite recently, even the official Oregon Trail website at www.oregontrail.com (maintained by the current trademark holder Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, but since taken down), referred to the 1985 Apple II game as “the original” – as shown in the following screen grab from that website:

As the lead designer and team leader for the Apple II version of The Oregon Trail, I had a ringside seat in the creation of this famous product. And therefore I am in a unique position to tell a story that has, until now, never been told.

The Riddle of Good Design

The story about how this familiar product was created is, primarily, a story about the process of design. How does a team of people go about creating a product like this? What steps do they follow? What pitfalls and bumps in the road do they encounter along the way? All of this leads to broader questions about the process of design. What constitutes a good design process? Are some design processes better than others? To what extent is the success of The Oregon Trail a result of good design – or a good design process? What does the phrase “good design” even mean?

To a certain extent, good design is a subjective concept. Two talented and experienced designers could review the same product, and the two might disagree on whether or not it is well designed. On the other hand, there are certain important and concrete criteria that can be used to judge the quality of a design – and as a result, good design is also partly an objective concept. Based on my 30+ years of experience in computer software design, I would say that there are two principal criteria for judging good design:

  1. A good design will provide the end-user with a great experience – and therefore the process of designing for the user is often called User Experience Design, or UX for short.
  2. A good design will do an excellent job of meeting the defined objectives of the project, usually expressed as business objectives.

There are other criteria which I also feel are important, although secondary to these first two. For example, on my projects, I always attempt to design for maintainability. In other words, I recognize that the software I design is likely to undergo many tweaks, adjustments, and enhancements during its lifetime. Instead of designing a brittle system that is hard to modify, I attempt to design a robust system that is capable of being modified without breaking it. But for the purpose of the story told in this book, the two principal criteria listed above are the focus.

The Organization of the Book

This book is divided into four parts:

Part A:  The Context for the Project

This part of the book focuses on the background of the project – everything that led up to the decision in 1984 to create a new, re-imagined, and greatly expanded version of The Oregon Trail for the Apple II. The four chapters in this section of the book are:

Chapter 1: The Evolving Technology of the Time

Chapter 2: Earlier Versions of The Oregon Trail

Chapter 3: The Evolution of MECC

Chapter 4: Gearing Up for the Redesign

Part B:  The Imagination Phase

The second part of the book examines the first three months of the project, a period in which we considered and explored a huge range of ideas for inclusion in The Oregon Trail. During these three months we could let our imaginations run wild with the possibilities – while simultaneously inventing a solid framework on which to build the product. The five chapters in this section of the book are:

Chapter 5: Imagining the Framework of the Game

Chapter 6: The Game Setup & Resource Models

Chapter 7: Interactions with Game Characters

Chapter 8: The Arcade Games

Chapter 9: Concluding the Imagination Phase

Part C:  The Reality Phase

The third part of the book examines the final six months of the project, the period in which we had to actually build, test, and refine the product. Early in the reality phase we had to discard a great number of ideas, allowing us to focus on the most important features. The nine chapters in this section of the book are:

Chapter 10: User Testing & Planning for Completion

Chapter 11: The Travel Screen

Chapter 12: Crossing Rivers

Chapter 13: The Hunting Activity

Chapter 14: Tombstones & Miscellaneous Features

Chapter 15: Designing for Replayability

Chapter 16: Building the Mathematical Models

Chapter 17: Restoring Abandoned Features

Chapter 18: Fine-Tuning the Details

Part D:  After the Product Release

The final section of the book looks at the results of the project – and how it continues to have an impact on our culture 30 years later. I also reflect on why I think the project was successful – and what I would do differently. The one chapter and four appendices in this section of the book are:

Chapter 19: Release, Reaction, & Reflection

Appendix 1: The Oregon Trail Memes

Appendix 2: What I Would Have Changed

Appendix 3: A Philosophy of Educational Software Design

Appendix 4: A Different Journey to Oregon

Acknowledgements

How I Got Into Educational Games

I spent 18 years of my professional career designing educational computer software, focusing primarily on educational games, before I moved into the design of web-based business and consumer applications – in which I spent another 14 years. My work on The Oregon Trail was relatively early in my career – and yet when I was chosen to design the product in 1984, I already had a very strong background that had prepared me well for the role. In particular, there were five key factors in my background that were crucial:

1)   A long-standing career goal to create educational media

Even before I started college, I felt that I was born to be a teacher – but not necessarily by standing in front of a classroom. In my seven years of college, from 1972 to 1979, I kept thinking and exploring how I might use technology to reach a mass audience, until I finally settled on computers as my medium for creating educational materials.

2)   Training in both computers and key content areas

I first started programming computers in 1971, while I was still in high school. I put it aside for a few years, and then returned to it in a big way. Throughout my three plus years in graduate school, I strove to combine studies in computer science with studies in various content areas – especially the natural sciences. Even after I finished graduate school, I continued to study widely, pursuing strong interests in geography and linguistics, in addition to my core interests in the natural sciences and educational psychology.

3)   Experience designing and programming educational computer simulations

For my last two years of graduate school, I specialized in the design and creation of computer simulation models for instructional purposes. I wrote my master’s thesis based on the work I had done, and then I immediately got a 6-month full-time temporary position at The University of Texas doing more of the same. Eventually, in May 1981, I joined MECC (the Minnesota Educational Computer Consortium), where my #1 goal was to create ground-breaking educational computer simulations.

4)   A strong philosophical position on educational software design

I was well aware of the various competing philosophies about how computers could and should be used in education. While I saw a certain amount of merit in all of these philosophies, only one philosophy was near and dear to my heart. I wanted to design highly engaging “micro-worlds” that would draw the user in. The user will be completely sucked into this entertaining environment, but to succeed in this world, the user will have to learn. Furthermore, the micro-world will stoke the user’s curiosity, so that even after leaving the computer, the user will want to learn more. (See Appendix 3 for more details about my philosophy of educational design.)

5)   A demonstrated ability to think outside the box

I had already been at MECC for well over three years when I was selected to lead the project to create a completely new version of The Oregon Trail. During this time I had repeatedly demonstrated my ability to think outside the box – to apply creative new solutions to difficult problems, and to imagine new possibilities that had never been done before. And so, in 1984, I was finally put into a role that allowed me to do what I had come to MECC to do – to create a ground-breaking simulation-based educational game.

Accessing the Game

If you have never played The Oregon Trail – or if you would enjoy playing it again – then you can find the game online. Several websites provide access to the 1985 Apple II version of the game, and at least one website lets you play the DOS version, which is nearly identical. To play the Apple II version of the game on a modern personal computer, you need to use an Apple II emulator. (Likewise, if you want to play the DOS version, then you need to use a DOS emulator.) There are three ways to do this:

1)   The easiest method is to go to a website where the emulator is built right into the web page – meaning that you don’t have to install anything at all. A good example is:

www.scullinsteel.com/apple2/

When you arrive at this website, just click the “Load” button for Drive 1, then choose “Educational”, and then “Oregon Trail – Disk 1”. You should also load Disk 2 to Drive 2, or else you will need to change to Disk 2 when you get halfway to Oregon.

2)   A second method is to go to a website that installs an Apple II plug-in into your web browser, allowing the browser to serve as the emulator. One such website is:

www.virtualapple.org

Click on the picture of The Oregon Trail. If all goes well, then the site will install an extension to your web browser that simulates an Apple II – and then you can play the game.

3)   A third method is to install a free Apple II emulator application on your computer. For example, if your computer runs Windows, then a good choice is AppleWin. After the app is installed, just download the disk images for The Oregon Trail (which consists of two disks) and play away!

If you really want to play the DOS version instead, then one possible website is this:

archive.org/details/msdos_Oregon_Trail_The_1990

Overview of the Game

If you would rather read this book than play the game right now, then the following summary will get you up to speed on the key features of the game.

When you start up the disk, the first screen to appear after the MECC logo is the main menu:

You choose the difficulty level by choosing a profession. This controls how much money you start the game with:

You type in your first name, followed by the names of the four people who will travel to Oregon with you:

After choosing what month of the year to begin your journey to Oregon, you visit Matt’s General Store to buy your oxen and supplies:

The 2000+ mile journey is divided into approximately 16 segments (depending upon the exact route you take). Each segment connects two important landmarks – such as river crossings, forts, geologic formations, and other noteworthy points. As you prepare to leave each landmark, you are told how many miles until the next landmark:

Each time that you arrive at a landmark, you have the opportunity to stop and look around:

Whenever you arrive at a river crossing, you must decide how best to cross it, depending upon the current conditions:

Regardless of which method you choose for crossing the river, you see an animation that illustrates your wagon crossing the river:

If the crossing was unsuccessful, then you suffer losses as a result:

Between landmarks, you can stop at any time to go hunting:

At any time during the journey, either at a landmark or between landmarks, you have a wide range of actions that you can take:

As you travel, members of your party may suffer from diseases:

Members of your party may also experience accidents:

Other events may occur at any time, some of which may slow you down or cause you losses:

On the other hand, some of these events can be fortunate:

At several locations, you reach a fork in the trail, and you must decide whether to take the trail on the left or the trail on the right:

Along the trail, you may meet Native Americans. For example, at the Snake River crossing, the Shoshone are experts at making this dangerous crossing. For a modest fee, they will help you cross the river:

If you break a wagon part, then you can try to fix it – which will cost you a day of effort. Otherwise you must replace the part with a spare that you are carrying. If you are not carrying the right spare part, then you are stuck until you can acquire the part from a passing wagon:

For the very last leg of the journey, you have the choice of floating down the Columbia River, or else paying a toll to take the Barlow Road:

If you choose to raft down the Columbia River, then you must avoid crashing your raft into any of the rocks in the river:

If you succeed in making it all the way to Oregon, then your points are tallied up. If your score is high enough, then your name will be added to the Oregon Top Ten:

*** End of Introduction ***

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