My Books

My first book has now been published, and the second book is well on its way. Future books will examine the world around us – helping to make sense of it all – focusing primarily on the natural sciences, geography, and language.

You Have Died of Dysentery

The Making of the Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail is perhaps the most famous educational computer software game ever created. Even today, references to the game can be found throughout popular culture. Familiar memes – such as “You have died of dysentery” and the tiny image of an ox pulling a covered wagon – can be found all over the internet.

The game has a long history, dating back to a simple timeshare version in the early 1970s. But when people make nostalgic references to The Oregon Trail, they usually refer to the 1985 Apple II version (or to the same product converted for IBM). This 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.

As the lead designer and team leader for this famous version of The Oregon Trail, I am in a unique position to tell a story that has, until now, never been told. Therefore I am pleased to present my new book “You Have Died of Dysentery” – now available as an ebook on Amazon.com. Using my collection of original design documents and early drafts of the game, I vividly describe the many surprising twists and turns of the design process. As the tale unfolds, I connect each of the issues that the team faced to the broader principles of good product design – and I draw many valuable lessons about how to create a winning product.

Sneak Preview!

The table of contents of the entire book appears below. Any chapter that is marked with an arrow symbol (arrow) can be read here on the website!

Introduction Chapter 1

Part A: The Context for 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

Chapter 7

Part B: The Imagination Phase

Three months in which we explored a huge range of ideas for The Oregon Trail, while also inventing a solid framework on which to build the product

Chapter 14

Part C: The Reality Phase

The final six months of the project, when we actually built, tested, and refined the product – focusing on the most important ideas from the imagination phase

  • 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
Chapter 19 Appendix 1 Appendix 2 Appendix 3 Appendix 4

Part D: After the Product Release

The results of the project, its impact on our culture 30 years later, what I would do differently, and my philosophy of educational software design