Monday, January 24, 2011

Happy Trails

Good article in last week's City Pages on how three Minnesotans helped blaze the Oregon Trail computer game:

Oregon Trail grew right along with the company, and when it came time to revise the game, nearly every MECC employee played some small role in its development. When John Krenz was hired as a programmer, one of his first tasks was to reprogram Oregon Trail along with a legion of awkward but excited 17-year-olds recruited from the local high schools. In between programming sessions, employees dove in and out of cubicles shooting one another with Nerf guns.

"It was a fun environment," he remembers. "We were young kids and very idealistic."

With a six-color monitor now available, the hunting game gained a single deer that blipped across the screen. Colorful images of historical sites popped up on the screen when players reached landmarks like Chimney Rock or Fort Hall. Historically accurate music—albeit played in a slightly discordant set of beeps—was added.

I imagine that a good part of my generational cohort will recall playing this particular educational game. Many an hour was spent deciding how much money you should spend on provisions, dealing with the inevitable pitfalls that came up on the journey, and hunting with a blast of the space bar. The graphics were minimalist and I can only imagine how many trees were sacrificed to provide the reams of wide, dual-colored paper that would print during the game.

Until I read this piece, I had no idea just how popular it was or how long it continued to be used in schools. Looking back on it now, I do have to question its true educational value. What exactly did I really learn about the history of the Oregon Trail? Very little. However, it did help me realize that there might be something to these new fangled personal computer things after all.

At the Atlantic Wire, Eli Rosenberg asks if its the greatest computer game of its era:

Later it grew into a real game for a computer with a monitor--legitimately fun, as anyone with foggy memories of the First Gulf War can tell you, and maybe even educational. How else would any of us know what "fording" a river is? The importance of having a spare axle in your wagon? How to hunt buffalo? What to do if a relative has cholera? [Correct answer: save your food supplies--he's done-for.] The fact that we've all lost a digital relative to the ravages of the trail might be the one thing that binds us as a generation. The 80's and early 90's saw some pretty great games that make it easy to reminiscence about the days when games were definitely simpler, and maybe life was too. Zelda, Pac-Man, Carmen Sandiego, Sonic the Hedgehog, Civilization II. Was Oregon Trail the greatest game of them all?

That seems like a stretch. While Oregon Trail was fun, it wasn't fun in the same way that other games were. When you played it at school it was better than the alternatives (like you know, learning stuff), but I don't recall having much desire to play it outside of school (at our neighbor's house) as I did with other games like Castle Wolfenstein. Maybe there was some educational value to it after all.