Chances are, just about anyone who went to elementary school during the 80’s and 90’s has seen or played the educational video game The Oregon Trail. You may even have been at the receiving end of the game’s iconic Game Over message, “You have died of dysentery”…but did you know that the game was originally created in 1971, by three teachers? It’s true!
The Oregon Trail was first published by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) in 1974. Oregon Trail was a text based computer game with minimal graphics, created to teach children about the harsh conditions and dangers encountered by settlers traveling that route during the 19th century. The game challenged the player to make tough decisions along the way, and reminded students that for a settler, an untimely demise was potentially just around the corner. Travelers could fall to cholera, typhoid, exhaustion, snakebites, measles, and of course, the famed dysentery. That phrase has been adopted into the common lexicon as a piece of 80’s nostalgia, and can be found printed on t-shirts and other items. The phrase “You have died of dysentery” was named #44 on IGN.com’s Top 100 Video Game Moments.
As morbid as it might sound to the uninitiated, death was given a humorous spin in Oregon Trail, partially due to the game’s tombstone feature. When a player died, they were given the option of typing in their name. This would place their name on a tombstone, which would be saved inside the game. Typically the game was left running in computer labs and libraries, so subsequent players later in the day might encounter the tombstone of a classmate who’d perished in the game earlier that morning, lending a tongue-in-cheek aspect to the game, and encouraging the unfortunate victim to make better decisions the next time. Another fondly remembered danger in the game was crossing rivers, where the player was forced to choose wisely which items to try to carry in their wagon. Making the wrong choice could lead to the demise of your party, your wagon, and your whole team of oxen.
The Oregon Trail has been the subject of many parodies, internet memes, and web comics, and its lasting appeal is a testament to the teachers who found a way to make learning fun in a way that lives on, in the hearts and minds of a generation, long after school has ended.