The Oregon Trail and the Rise and Fall of Educational Software – Matthew Payne

>>[Peter Holland:] Good afternoon, everybody.
I’m Peter Holland. I’m Associate Dean. Today’s speaker is Matthew Payne, my colleague,
my home department is Film, Television, and Theatre. He’s an associate professor. He
came to us via MFA and Ph.D. work first at Boston University, and then at the University
of Texas at Austin, and was an assistant professor at the University of Alabama in the Telecommunication
and Film department before coming here in 2016. He was tenured in 2018. He is the first
person on faculty here at Notre Dame whose research area is primarily in video gaming
and other forms of emerging media, and he defines himself as somebody who specializes
in critical analysis and the cultural history of video gaming. He’s the author of most
recently “Playing War: Military Video Games After 9/11,” published by New York University
Press in 2016, and was co-editor of the anthologies “How to Play Video Games” and “Flow
TV: Television in the Age of Media Convergence.” He’s taught a wide range of media studies
and media production courses at universities, and he’s done industry research for Warner
Brothers. He’s currently working on a book project that historicizes the influence of
Ultima, an early computer role-playing game. Some of you may remember it, I have to admit
I don’t. Matthew also serves as a regional director for the Learning Games Initiative,
which is a multi-institute research collective dedicated to archiving games and gaming ephemera,
and to distributing these materials to educators for classroom instruction. Please welcome
Matthew Payne to talk about The Oregon Trail and the Rise and Fall of Educational Software. [applause]>>[Matthew Payne:] Alright, let’s see,
we have levels, excellent. Thank you to Associate Dean Peter Holland for the kind introduction.
Thank you also to Dean Sarah Mustillo and the College of Arts and Letters for the invitation
and for the opportunity to sneak a little bit of something different into your football
Saturday. I’d also like to thank Ann Knoll and the Snite support staff, the tech support
as well, for making this such a great space to present. Thank you also to the Strong Museum
of Play in Rochester, New York. This presentation is based on some of their archival holdings.
And obviously thank you to y’all, you came out and I know you have other places you could
be. I’m super excited that you’re here. Alright, so a quick show of hands: I’m sure
I can see you. How many of you have either played The Oregon Trail or have had family
and children who have played The Oregon Trail? Okay, there we go. Excellent. So the room
is filled with veteran adventurers who have journeyed west, or have attempted to journey
west, who have made those, you know, cringe-worth, life-changing decisions about how much food
to buy, right? Whether to snag that extra wagon axle or not, the challenges of hunting.
So real quick necessary opening caveat here: This represents the starting point of what
will hopefully be a larger research project, or to put it in terms of the game, I’m just
now departing from Independence, Missourah, as my dad would say. So I quite selfishly
appreciate this opportunity to organize some of my early thoughts about this wildly influential
game and why it matters. And I invite your feedback afterwards, both about the presentation
but also about your experiences playing the game. So the central question for today, the
thing that motivates these remarks, is why study The Oregon Trail? What could we possibly
learn from looking closely at an older if not antiquated piece of educational software?
What might its production history tell us about the intersection of the software industry
and of education? Might we learn something about the aspirations of the teachers who
helped design it? And why, why, why in the world does The Oregon Trail continue to cast
such a long shadow in popular culture? Is it, dare I ask, some optimistic sign about
the power of computer-aided learning? Is it simply its cultural longevity owed to the
power of nostalgia? Is it fondly remembered because it introduced collaborative game-play
experiences into formal learning spaces? Or is it something more simple: is it simply
the naked glee that comes from learning that your annoying computer lab partner just got
squashed by a runaway wagon? Like, some of these questions tend to answer themselves.>>So today’s goals are three-fold. First,
I want to begin by offering a brief overview of the game’s appearance in popular culture,
and to argue for its continued cultural relevance. Second, and this is where I’ll spend most
of my time, I want to go back, take you all back to 1971 to tell the story about how three
undergraduate teaching assistants would create a simple but inspired supplemental learning
tool for a local middle school history class. And that years later this little programming
exercise which was initially sketched out on about four feet of butcher paper would
eventually become the most widely distributed educational game ever. Now some estimates
have it at around 65 million copies. I actually think that it’s north of that number, given
how common it was a practice for educational institutions to duplicate their software.
Alright, so the Oregon Trail, along with titles like Rita Rabbit and Where in the World is
Carmen San Diego, would help to create the educational entertainment or what’s termed
“edutainment” software market. This market saw its birth in the 1970s, its considerable
expansion in the eighties, and then its consolidation in the mid- to late nineties and eventually
its death in the early 2000s. So third, today I want to finally conclude with a few parting
thoughts on why we should take games seriously. Their social and cultural meaningfulness is
clear enough to those of us who study media, but I think that The Oregon Trail and its
non-educational counterparts—yes, games that you have on your phone, right? Games
like Candy Crush or games that cause fights within families like Fortnite—they have
a lot to teach us if we ask the right questions.>>Okay, so let’s start here by looking
at the long shot of The Oregon Trail and pop culture. So few if any games have been played
by more generations of American school children than The Oregon Trail. Because it appeared
in schools and in homes across a range of platforms for about fifty years now, it’s
not at all surprising that it continues to circulate in popular culture. The examples
are plentiful and what you’ll see today represents merely a modest sampling. So it
probably makes sense to start here, right? The dreaded declaration that you’ve died
of dysentery is a punchline that appears on t-shirts and posters. The game’s inspired
other kinds of cultural expressions, including multiple musicals. One is by Star Kid Productions,
who are best known for their Harry Potter-themed stage productions. They started just north
of here in Ann Arbor. They’re affiliated with a school, it’s on the tip of my tongue,
I’m blanking on it, I’m sure it will come to me later. Here we have Oregon Trail appearing
as a Teen Titans Go episode. I saw my kids watching this and then I had to explain to
them the joke. It’s the inspiration for a range of retro-styled games including such
eclectic characters starring people who are trying to vote, the undead, and hipsters.
So for instance there’s this zombie survival game, The Organ Trail. In 2016 the New York
Times produced as part of their op-doc or opinion documentary series, Voter Suppression
Trail, which aims to convey the uneven challenges that face different kinds of Americans
who are trying to vote. And in 2017 the Oregon Tourism Commission produced “Travel Oregon:
the Game” where instead of buying essentials like food, ammunition and wagon parts, the
player has to decide how much kombucha, craft beer, or artisanal coffee to buy. The undying
love for this game has given rise to multipart live-action competitive games, two- to four-person
teams compete to “build a wagon out of paper and dowel rods before tackling various challenges
like floating a wagon across a kiddy pool, shooting at game with Nerf guns, and competing
in a three-legged dysentery race to an outhouse.” The iconic pixilated wagon and oxen image
has generated numerous memes like this one where it’s “sometimes I name the people
in my wagon after people who’ve pissed me off so I can watch them die from horrible
nineteenth-century diseases that we have treatments for now.” The Oregon Trail continues to
exist today to play on modern apps, as a card game, as an electronic hand-held toy, and
as a choose-your-own-adventure book series. It’s also inspired a range of fan productions.
There’s this really lovely home-made, original arcade cabinet that you can see on the left,
as well as a book of poetry by Gregory Sherl called “The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail.”
It contains a number of pieces, but one that I really like is called “The Oregon Trail
should never start the trail in July.” If you’ll indulge me, I’ll read it. “I
am galliant with my heart. Watch me carry my oxen across the Kansas river. Outside Fort
Kearney we find an abandoned wagon. Inside, severe thunderstorms. We lose one day. So
many minutes spent huddled under wet blankets. Child number one, Christopher, has typhoid.
His forehead is so hot that we could boil water, which of course we do. Who wants mac
and cheese, you say. Even Christopher raises his hand and he’s almost dead. We eat like
kings, we eat like bankers from Boston with cheese o our faces. After dinner we lay Christopher
prostrate in the back of the wagon. Christopher says, “my spleen is too hyper, my liver
is full of helium.” He’s too sick to die quickly. He just moans. On the trail everything
is too hot, everything green is brown, and everything brown has disappeared. Inadequate
grass. The oxen are hungry, they’re whispering about food in mysterious places, they’re
whispering about the helium in Christopher’s liver.”>>Some have even proposed an Oregon Trail
generation, those falling at the tail end of Gen-Xers but before Millennials. Anna Garvey,
an author of one such piece, notes “If you can distinctly recall the excitement of walking
into your weekly computer lab session and seeing a room full of Apple 2Es displaying
the start screen of The Oregon Trail, then you’re a member of this nameless generation,
my friend.” Cementing its legacy in 2016, The Oregon Trail was inducted into the Strong
Museum of Play’s rogue videogame Hall of Fame into their second annual class, and you
can see here on the slide that it’s in good company with games like The Legend of Zelda
and Space Invaders. So let’s circle back to that original question: why study The Oregon
Trail? Well maybe this quick survey suggests that there is something about the collective
game-play experiences that continue to resonate with players many years later that’s worth
thinking about.>>Alright, so the Long Trail. The game made
its inauspicious debut in history class at Bryan Junior High in Minneapolis, Minnesota
on Friday, December 3, 1971. Bryan Junior High was located in the central neighborhood
of South Minneapolis, serving an historically black population. The school was open from
22 to 79. The game simply titled OREGON, in all caps, was a simulation that utilized the
state’s then cutting-edge time- sharing technology. The text-based game, so
again this is a text-based adventure, it’s not a graphic adventure, text-based game,
was a collaboration between three undergrads at Carlton College in Northfield, Minnesota:
Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger. All three were training to be teachers. During
their senior year they moved into an apartment together so they could be closer to the city
and to their teaching gigs. Don Rawitsch was assigned to lead an eighth-grade history lesson
about westward migration. Wanting to do something more interesting than a typical assignment,
Don set upon making a board game. Bill Heinemann, who’d been taking a programming class during
his junior year, asked Paul Dillenberger, who also had some programming experience,
if they could make Rawitsch’s game work on a computer. Rawitsch had three weeks until
his lesson activities were due. Now at this point he’d spent about a week designing
the board game which gave the three roommates two more weeks to translate the prototype
board game into computer code. Over that time Rawitsch continued adding historical detail
to the game while Dillenberger and Heinemann translated the rules into the basic programming
language using their school’s teletype. So teletype was the interface by which they
were able to connect remotely to the mainframe computer that processed the programming at
a remote site, and as the name suggests, there’s no screen, there’s only, you know, all the
output was printed out on paper. Dillenberger and Heinemann also introduced changes to Rawitsch’s
prototype including random events that were tied to probability tables. For example, the
player’s more likely to be attacked by native Americans in the western plains and cold weather
was more likely to be an issue as one was passing through Wyoming and Oregon. This had
the added effect of making the game different upon replay, right? Because there was a random
element, you could make the same choices and still have a different experience. Now interestingly,
the warning of “Indians ahead” was replaced by “riders ahead” after Dillenberger heard
some negative feedback from school faculty. They also replaced the verb “tomahawked”
with “knifed.” Now given that this was 1971, this would almost certainly count as
one of the earliest instances of representational politics in a computer game. Heinemannn was
responsible for the main coding of the game, while Dillenberger worked on the game’s
subroutines as he play-tested the code. Heinemann was also responsible for one of Oregon’s
most innovative features. So those of us who are most familiar with the 1985 version remember
laying waste to multitudes of woodland creatures, right? Like if you had enough ammunition you
could kill every single bear, squirrel, deer that came across your path. What’s interesting
is Heinemann introduced the hunting mechanic using a timed input command. So again, The
Oregon Trail from 1985 is graphic. Oregon was a text adventure. So at certain points
in the game the simulation would prompt the player to type in the word “bang” or “pow.”
And if they took too long to type it or if they misspelled the word, they missed the
target. The game was a success. In interviews the three recounted how kids at Bryan Junior
High lined up to play the game. They would patiently type in commands, they would read
the printed feedback, they would debate amongst themselves how best to use their dwindling
resources. The three also noted how students would frequently divide up tasks among themselves,
right? If someone was good at using the keyboard, they would be the one who would type. Someone
else would keep a record, a log of how much money was spent during the trek. And this
was all done without the teachers telling them how to play. Oregon’s success was real,
but it was also obviously limited. In fact, it was only used by students in a single school
and it only lived on the state’s time-sharing system
for two weeks. Now this could have been easily the last the world ever saw or heard of this
game, had it not been for a few fortuitous happenings. First, the creators who you see
in an image here taken years later, were wise to print out a copy of the basic code before
it was deleted from the system. Second, a few years later in 1974, the Minnesota Educational
Computing Consortium hired Don Rawitsch. So let’s circle back to the question again.
Why study The Oregon Trail? One reason to study is that the story of The Oregon Trail
isn’t simply about The Oregon Trail. It’s also the story about educational technology
and about the hopes and aspirations attached to it. In order to understand why Don Rawitsch’s
hiring in 1974 was important, we need to zoom out a little and understand the state of computing
in Minnesota during that time. So before Silicon Valley was Silicon Valley, there was Minnesota.
In the 1960s and 70s before computers were personal consumer electronics, major firms
like Honeywell, Univac, Control Data Corporation, IBM called the Twin Cities home. There they
built giant mainframe computers for the military, for various government agencies, and for other
large private firms managing and dealing with big data. But technology alone wasn’t sufficient
to create the conditions for something like The Oregon Trail to come into being. Indeed,
technology alone rarely is. Instead, as historian Joy Lisi Rankin compellingly argues in her
excellent book, A People’s History of Computing in the United States, the other secret ingredient
here was the civic-mindedness of these Midwesterners. That is, they saw computing technology as
a kind of public utility, as a resource that needed to be shared for the common good. With
so many folks being employed by these companies, it’s not at all surprising to know that
the excitement for computing would migrate into the schools. Now according to Rankin,
in the 65-66 school year teachers at University High School arranged to have a teletype terminal
installed. Although it appears ancient or quaint by our contemporary standards, the
teletype was also far superior to feeding stacks of punch cards into a big machine.
A year later in ’67 eighteen school districts came together to create a network called TIES.
It stands for the Total Information for Educational Systems. So alone no single school could afford
the millions of dollars needed for a mainframe. Heck, even leasing a computer would be cost-prohibitive.
However, collectively they could afford to purchase teletype terminals for their institutions
and they could put their money together and afford the computation time needed for dialing
in to the mainframe system. According to Rankin, over 26,000 students logged in to the system
during the ’71-72 school year. So again that year, 1971. So some of those 26,000 students
that logged in would have been playing Oregon. Not many, but some of them. A few years later
in 1973, building on the success of TIES, the state founded the Minnesota Educational
Computing Consortium, or MECC for short. Now, that name might not mean anything to you or
maybe a few of you, but I bet you there’s some folks here that remember this, right?
You remember the logo, it’s probably hiding somewhere back in the recesses of your mind.
It was emblazoned on all their materials. It was on the boxes, on the packaging, on
the floppy disk, it was on the loading screens. So MECC’s goal was to extend the computational
reach beyond what TIES was able to accomplish. By 1975, so only two years later, they were
connected to 84% of the state’s school children. They had access to the MECC network. And by
1981 MECC was operating the world’s largest educational time-sharing system, which connected
over 2000 terminals in public school, universities, and community colleges. MECC was quickly building
the infrastructure, both technological and importantly the human knowhow, and it had reliable state funds and bipartisan political
support. That is, it had both money and collective political will. Which is not only not too
bad, but you know, it seems like a miracle given today’s state of affairs, right, to
have everybody be on board with something like this. What MECC needed though, however,
at this point was software. So that’s where Don Rawitsch comes in, and you can see him
actually in this promotional photo at the bottom. Shortly after he was hired, in fact
during the Thanksgiving break of 1974, and after gaining the permission of his undergraduate
collaborators, Rawitsch entered the 800 or so lines of code into MECC’s system. Not
only was Oregon alive again, it was no available to anybody who had access to their network,
students who wanted to play Oregon. More impressively though, these students started modifying the
game. They changed the code in BASIC to create new game-play possibilities. So this slide
again. Why do it? Well perhaps one reason is that it offers an early example of teaching
computer literacy through the modification of game code, or of computer code. One of
the reasons why MECC was so successful was due to how they supported the software in
their timeshare library. MECC regularly held tutorial sessions at schools for all levels
of teachers and administrators, and I’m sure if you take a moment and try to go back
in time or think about a moment in your own work where you were forced to adopt a new
workplace piece of technology, there’s probably kind of that shared terror and dread, right?
It’s like oh my gosh, how do I do this new thing, I have to do it! Now imagine you’re
teaching a science class in high school or you’re an elementary school math teacher,
and now you’re being asked to use this device which is connected somehow magically over
phone lines to this impossibly expensive computer, and to do all of that while wrangling a bunch
of 9-year-olds.>>MECC also distributed supplemental materials
that coached teachers on how they might best use their programs in class. For example,
there’s the guide for Oregon, which was published in April of ’77. This user manual
contains information about the historical topic, basic instructions, learning outcomes,
documentation on its design including flow charts and probability tables. I’ll show
some of that to you all shortly. And suggestions for how to complement the exercise with other
activities like discussions and additional readings. Now something I haven’t examined
too closely yet is MECC’s use or their aversion to the word “game.” Now Oregon’s full
title is Oregon: a Computerized Historical Simulation. I would hazard a guess that they
would want to avoid the stigma of video games, even at this early juncture, as it might call
to mind commercial arcades and concerns about truancy and violence. In fact, the word “game”
occurs only once in that document, on p. 21 where it says, “the Oregon simulation was
not designed to simply stand alone as a classroom activity, a game of beat the computer.”
So the strategic avoidance, if in fact that’s what it is, makes a good deal of sense. The
first home game system like Magnavox Odyssey in 1972 were marketed as family-friendly educational
devices. However, already by the mid-seventies as video arcades quickly grew in popularity,
concerns also grew about excessive game play that was unmonitored or unregulated by adults.
In 1976, so a year before this manual is published, we have our first moral panic around video
games with Exidy’s Death Race. It’s a, most people don’t remember, it’s a black
and white driving game where the player’s objective is to strike these humanoid figures
to earn points. A year later in the May-June 1978 issue of Creative Computing, which was
one of the first hobbyist magazines dedicated to personal computers, it features a long
piece authored by Don Rawitsch who—they unfortunately misspell his name on the byline
as Dan there. Interestingly the table of contents of the
magazine lists this entry under their “Things to do: games” subheading. So even if MECC,
you know, strategically avoided the word “game,” it’s certainly how it was broadly understood.
After all, kids don’t love running off to the computer lab to play a simulation.>>So again, why this question? What’s an
answer. Well, then perhaps another possible answer is that studying this closely offers
us a kind of cultural barometer on words like “game” and how they’re understood as
either supporting or getting in the way of learning. Alright, so many of you know what
the 1985 version of the game looked like. Few of you remember or have ever seen or experienced
what Oregon on the time-sharing network looked like. So I want to go ahead and take a closer
look at it to get a sense of what it’s text-based game-play looked like, recognizing of course
that it’s impossible to replicate the teletype experience. So here we have a sample run that’s
with some of Rawitsch’s annotations and later slides. So here we have the beginning
choices. You know, it’s asking you how much do you want to spend on oxen, on food, on
ammo, on clothes. The date here, March 29, 1847, the mileage is zero because we haven’t
left yet. But then it goes on: how do you want to eat? Do you want to eat poorly, moderately,
or well, and those choices will then determine your health. We then encounter one of our
first obstacles here. So it says “riders ahead, they look hostile.” Tactics: what
do we want to do? Run, attack, continue, circle the wagons? If you run you’ll gain time
but wear down your oxen. If you circle you’ll lose time. The player wants to do (2), attack,
type “bang, bang.” So it’s successful: “nice shoot, you drove them off, riders
were hostile.” So what the annotations, Rawitsch’s annotations are showing here
is that, you know, when we decided to eat moderately it’s going to deduct a certain
amount of food and here we engaged in a fire fight so we have less ammunition.>>Here we have some additional examples:
these are examples of mistypes, so here we have another what do we want to do, do we
want to stop at the next fort, hunt, or continue. Well, let’s hunt, so we type 2, type bang,
misspell it, “sorry, no luck today!” Here’s another one: “bandits attack”, type bang,
again misspell, “you got shot in the leg and they took one of your oxen. Better have
a doc look at your wound!” So we find out the next day, oh man, $20 doctor’s bill
plus like they took off with one of our oxen. This is not good. And so the game continues
in this fashion, right? As player are challenged and charged with managing their dwindling
resources against all of these external forces. The user’s manual also includes these probability
diagrams and tables, so here we have two showing the probability of running into hazards like
hostile riders or encountering difficult terrain. Here we have two flow charts that illustrate
the simulation’s simple game-play loop. So resources are totaled up, we’re then
given our choice what do we want to do. Of course misfortunes occur, something bad happens,
we react to that, and then it goes back into that. On the right you can see a more detailed
version of that where it enumerates some of the things that one might encounter, including
fire in the wagon, a hailstorm, a lost child, etc. This is just for my own indulgence here
because I feel like the phrase “misfortune occurs” is so peak 2019. I don’t know
if it’s the fatalist in me or not, but I feel like why this isn’t on a bumper sticker
already, I don’t know. But anyway, I just wanted to share that little bit.>>So there are other actors in this story.
So again sort of zooming out here. Who are the other actors in this drama? Well let’s
zoom out a little further beyond the classrooms of the Twin Cities and beyond MECC operations
in the state of Minnesota. So at the same time that Don Rawitsch was working as part
of MECC’s instructional services division, one of the first great consumer electronic
wars was about to unfold. 1977 saw the introduction of three mass-marketed personal computers:
Apple’s Apple II, Tandy’s TRS 80, and the Commodore PAT. Anticipating that personal
computers might put computing in even more schools and homes and believing that there’d
be an eventual migration away from time-share systems, MECC’s production team revamped
Oregon for the Apple II’s computer monitor. MECC then put out a call for computer firms
to supply the hardware needed as they transitioned from centralized mainframe systems to microcomputers,
those things that we would typically call laptop or desktop. About a dozen companies
responded including many of the usual suspects: IBM, Atari, Commodore, Radio Shack, and Apple.
According to historian Thomas Misa’s “Digital State” Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak actually
delivered a handwritten note asking that the Apple IIs be put in every Minnesota classroom.
Despite Apple’s then relatively modest size compared to some of these other firms, MECC
opted to go with them. Now an interesting side note here is that MECC would become the
largest reseller of Apple software in the nation. Again, pointing back to historian
Thomas Misa’s “Digital State” where in Misa contends that IBM wouldn’t have
been competitive but that Radio Shack probably would have been, but they submitted their
bid too late. And it’s sort of a fun thought experiment, again for those of us who spent
time in computer labs in the eighties and nineties in the States, what would it have
been like had Radio Shack’s Tandy computer been there as opposed to the Apples?>>According to Dale LaFrenz, MECC’s founder
and president, “MECC became Apple’s largest dealer and sold to all the Minnesota schools.
MECC and Apple were always in sync, including a grand plan to save the world by putting
computing power in the hands of every kid in America. Humility did not run in the veins
of Steve and Steve.” Referring to Wozniak and Jobs. And neither did pure altruism or
a love of learning. In 1979 Steve Jobs discovered a potentially useful federal tax deduction.
It allowed a company to qualify for additional tax savings if they donated scientific equipment
like a computer to a research facility. But Jobs also needed this rule to apply to K through
8 institutions, not just research facilities. He convinced a House representative and a
senator to introduce a modified bill to Congress, whereupon it failed. However Jobs did manage
to convince the state of California to offer it as a statewide tax credit. He recalled
all this in a 1995 interview saying, “We gave away 10,000 computers in California,
we got a whole bunch of the software companies to give away their software, we helped train
teachers for free and monitored this thing over the next few years. It was phenomenal.”>>As for MECC, their partnership with Apple
allowed the firm to more quickly and successfully transition to distributing their educational
software via physical media, so first the 5-1/4 inch floppies, then the 3-1/2 disk and
later CD-ROMs. In 1980 Oregon was packaged with four other titles: Furs Nomad Sumerian
Voyager on the inconspicuously titled “Elementary Volume Six Disk.” This version has the game’s
first graphic elements, a map showing the progress from east to west as well as a hunting
minigame, which is different from the minigame that most of us are familiar with. But the
important thing is once the game was put on physical media, the floppy disk, Oregon and
MECC’s other titles quickly gained their widespread household, or perhaps you might
say schoolhouse notoriety outside of the state of Minnesota. This question again. Maybe one other answer is to have a clear
idea of how our elected representatives make choices concerning educational technology
and tax policy.>>Okay, so The Oregon Trail doesn’t become
the Oregon Trail without what? Without innovative teachers and student teachers, without taxpayers
who believe in the civic necessity of affordable access to computation, without educators who
are also building human and technological infrastructure and support network for computer
literacy, and it doesn’t happen without computer electronic firms looking for a competitive
advantage in a crowded marketplace. All of these forces conspired to make The Oregon
Trail a possibility. The Oregon Trail isn’t also a possibility if it’s not compellingly
designed. So let’s look at why the game itself resonated with so many generations
of school children. By the early 1980s Oregon was already showing its age. It sold well
but MECC was keenly interested in making profitable edutainment. And this was signaled in 1983
when Minnesota transformed MECC into a profit-making company and changed the name from Minnesota
Educational Computing Consortium to the Minnesota Education Computing Corporation. Two years
later in 1985 the company dramatically overhauls Oregon as The Oregon Trail and releases it
as a stand-alone title. This is the version that most of us know. Philip Bouchard, there
pictured on the right in that group picture, led their creative team in overhauling the
aging title and many of the features, pictured on the right there, are those that are commonly
associated with the title. The hunting, the crossing of rivers, seeing the various landmarks,
those are all in the 1985 version. These elements are clearly important, but I think The Oregon
Trail succeeds in part because it’s more than the sum of its parts. So why was it successful
as a game? I think it was successful because it shares many of the same elements as the
other kinds of popular creative media and performances that I study and that my colleagues
study in the Department of Film, Television, and Theater. There are clear objectives in
the game. The players are able to transform themselves into a goal-oriented protagonist.
This game is at times punishing, right? Thieves would steal your supplies in the middle of
the night, oxen would get injured and die, you’d run out of money and get stranded
somewhere along the trail. In other words, it had dramatic stakes. It foregrounds player
agency and opportunities for role-playing. You can spend most of your money on bullets
and rarely if ever buy food if you’re a good enough shot. You can create funny names
and leave them on tombstones. If you’re playing with others you need to cooperate
and you need to strategize in order to survive. The game was wildly successful. In fact one
could argue that MECC, if not sort of larger educational entertainment software sector,
became a victim of its own success. Its commercial success convinced the state to sell MECC in
1991 to a venture capital firm for five and a quarter million dollars. In 1994 the IPO
was offered up and it raised 22 million dollars, part of that was regularly earning annual
revenues of about 30 million dollars. The newer versions that were released in the nineties
reflect the changing character of the games industry and of consumer electronics. For
example, Wagon Train 1848 allowed up to 30 students in the same computer lab to play
as part of the same wagon train.>>The Oregon Trail II was a media-rich CD-ROM
with its own cinematics and a musical score. There is information about Oregon Trail online,
although I’ve not been able to find really any information about it. If you know anything
about it please reach out to me after the presentation. I’d love to hear more about
it. There are signs that it was published or ran in 1996, but I wouldn’t be surprised
if it wasn’t terribly long-lived because there was so much going on regarding
mergers and acquisitions in the edutainment sector at this point. So MECC is sold to Softkey
in May of 1996, their stock being valued at around $350 million. Fun fact here: Softkey
was run at the time by Kevin O’Leary of Shark Tank fame. Softkey had previously purchased
The Learning Company for just over $600 million and later the Broderbund software company
who were the publishers of Carmen San Diego. The company ended up adopting The Learning
Company name because of its brand recognition. In the fall of 1998 Mattel acquired, the toy
company Mattel, acquires The Learning Company valuing it somehow at approximately $4.2 billion,
with a B, billion dollars. To illustrate how far off they were Mattel anticipated that
The Learning Company would post $50 million in profits in the third quarter of 1999. Instead
it hemorrhaged $105 million. By the year’s end, the losses exceeded $200 million. Mattel
had to sell The Learning Company at a loss. The CEO was forced to resign, and it is considered
by business journalists to this day to be one of the worst acquisitions of all time.
The total financial losses to Mattel have been estimated to be as high as $3.6 billion.
Gore Technology Group, which is a private equity firm, later purchased The Learning
Company for a paltry $27 million, and of course we don’t need to play math munchers to know
that $3.6 billion is more than $27 million. So what about The Oregon Trail today?>>It has incredible stamina. Amazingly, in
February of this year the fifth edition of the game was the number one seller in the
children’s software games category on Amazon. The game continues to inspire fandom, right,
whether it’s Cosplay on the left or original fan art on the right where we see the game’s
three creators being overwhelmed by what looks to be an ill-advised river crossing. Again,
this nagging question. I mean we could ask the follow-up, which is why study any game?
And why study any game? I think we do it because of this: I got us back to football, you’re
welcome! Okay. So why is this sign inspirational? It’s about tradition, it’s about hard
work, but I think it’s also about something else. I think it’s because it challenges
us to be better, right? It’s to assume the identity of a champion. It’s to play like
a champion. It’s a bit of role-playing, isn’t it? It’s performance, it’s play.
But I want to focus on the first part. So why do we study games? Well, we study games
because it allows us to study play. We know that play is critical for human development
in children. It’s also critical though for human happiness in adults. Play is the freedom
of movement within boundaries. Play gives us license to try things on, to change identities,
to make choices that we might not otherwise make in other situations. It allows us to
learn and to grow through trial and error. In The Oregon Trail, yeah, we died, we crossed
the river when we shouldn’t have, we ran out of ammo, we ran out of money. Yes, we
died of dysentery, THIS TIME, right? Play encourages us to reset the game, to try it
again, to play and to replay like a champion. So I’ll finish with this. So one of the
great treasures and treats of doing historical research are those oddball discoveries that
you run across in the forgotten notebooks buried in the back of archival storage facilities.
So I wanted to share this one. It’s a classic tombstone from The Oregon Trail, and it reads
this: “Here lies USC, poor Trojans, eyes burning red, fell to the Irish without beating
the spread.” [laughter and applause] Again, thank you for your time, and go Irish! So
we’ll just open it up for Q&A.>>[audience member:] What’s your high score
on The Oregon Trail?>>[Payne:] That’s a great question. I don’t
know. I’ve been playing, I played recently with my kids and we don’t tend to make it
very far. So I don’t have any high scores to share with you. But that was one of the
innovations that they did with the ’85 version. They realized that if they sort of gamified
it, which I know is somewhat of a dirty word, but they gamified the experience if they added
points to it, that there would be that competition element and that would encourage replay and
different kinds of strategies in a way that we didn’t see in previous editions. Other
thoughts or questions? Yes.>>[audience member:] Yes. Are there any comparisons
I guess you could make to games similar today that, like Civilization or may the Total War
franchise, are those kind of your generation’s, your developments, or are they missing something
and will end up having the same fate as The Oregon Trail?>>[Payne:] It’s a good question. I mean,
yes, I think we’re used to having now like historical simulations as being a really rich
sub-genre of games. Obviously Sid Myer’s Civilization being a key example of that.
So we have I think, Civ comes out in ’91 initially? I could be wrong, but I think it’s
’91. And so something like The Oregon Trail, I haven’t read any interviews with Sid Myer
but I’d be surprised if this didn’t figure prominently in his mind about the game. I
think The Oregon Trail, but also educational tech, was a victim, you know, as I hopefully
outlined, of betting on it too much and then also being stuck then in the early 2000s with
the internet kind of exploding in its commercial capacity and also people’s expectations
about what they spend on digital media kind of dipping, right? So if you’re selling—I
found a price sheet, 1983 price sheet for the Elementary Volume Six disk that MECC would
sell would be $42. You know, that’s quite a bit of money. And to then go to the late
90’s or 2000s, you know, where you have these really richly constructed CD-ROMs with
a lot of production value, there was speculation that there simply wasn’t the same kind of
creative personnel that were there. And this would be a really great research question
to follow up, is was there migration outside of MECC to some of these private firms in
game developers, who don’t have the same kind of educational mandate that you would
expect when selling your ware to primary or secondary institutions. But you know, certainly
I, we know today the ways in which commercial off-the-shelf titles like Assassin’s Creed,
for instance, have been pulled into classrooms, right? There was famously a class at MIT that
was taught, a physics class at MIT that was taught a few years ago that used Portal as
a way of explaining physics. So it’s, there are definitely ways that commercial off-the-shelf
titles are pulled in, and certainly there continues to be educational titles, explicitly
educational titles that are produced, but the business model is just wildly different
now.>>[audience member:] Which version of The
Oregon Trail do you feel had the most educational value? And what kind of game or simulation
do you feel is the most beneficial today?>>[Payne:] Oooh, I don’t know. I will say,
I have yet to read up on any, you know I’m sure there are studies that were done on the
efficacy, like the educational efficacy of these titles. I don’t know if they’re
in pre- or post-test, but you know, there’s certainly all manner of anecdotal information.
But I’d be curious to see, for folks who are in education, what did they find, like
were there certain versions that led to better learning outcomes? So I’m just familiar
with this version. I think that it balances information with mini-games pretty well. So
I’m not really in a position to say which one is best. But I think as part of this historical
research I was really blown away by how innovative even the teletype version is, right? Like asking
you, really putting you in these dire circumstances and asking you to make these serious choices
that seem to have these consequences. And teaching you, like even if it’s on a teletype,
even if it’s just on text, maybe hopefully getting a group of middle-schoolers to think
through like, oh my gosh, like how did anybody ever make it, right? Like these were impossible
decisions. Sorry I don’t have a more satisfying answer.>>[inaudible from audience member:]>>[Payne:] Also a good question. You know,
I know my kids regularly go, you know, they’re in the public school system here in South
Bend. They have computer lab time with their educational titles. I think that I’ll sort
of dodge but offer a sort of answer, which is I think that it’s important, it’s less
important to think about the game as a transmission device than it is to equip our students to
think and ask difficult and serious questions about games, right? So like that’s the transferable
skill that I would want. Like this is a novelty, you know, maybe it teaches us something but
it’s just fun. It’s nostalgic. But being able to ask the questions, you know, why would
King Interactive, why would Activision pay $6.1 billion for King Interactive, the producer
of Candy Crush, when in fact Disney only paid $4 billion to Lucas for Star Wars? Right?
Like connecting candy is way more lucrative than all the Star Wars. That’s wild! That
is WILD! So we ask questions about like how is it produced, how is it monetized, asking
questions about the representational politics, right? I love the fact that the teaching assistants
had to go back and think about the language that they were using when describing native
Americans. You know, the critique rightly so of the earlier games that they sort of
misrepresent native Americans, they misrepresent women in frontier life, and that’s something
too that you see MECC addressing through subsequent releases. So definitely by the time they get
to Oregon Trail II, there’s not just women represented in the game but there’s also
people of color that are represented in the game. So you know, we can ask those challenging
questions about the representational politics of the game, we can ask serious questions
about the mechanics of the game, like, you know, is this the right way to depict westward
migration? You could render this in any number of ways, but when we start pulling apart the
rules of the game, that too will reveal certain values that we have and certain ideologies
that we have. And so I think, more than thinking what is the best version of the game to give
to students, I think it’s really about equipping them to have a transferable set of critical
questions and frameworks that they can say okay, what is this game asking me to do, and
what does that reveal about the way that it sees the world and the way it addresses me?
Like what is it asking me to do in the world? So again, I didn’t exactly address the question.
Sidestep. Other questions, comments, observations?>>[audience member:] So you talked about
the death of educational software in the 21st century. But I went up through school, you
know, like started 2004, 2005 something like that, and I had monitored exposure to educational
software but it was just online at that point, rather than like a physical disk. And most
of it was just like open-source online stuff. So that’s not like so much a death as it
is like a rebirth.>>[Payne:] It’s definitely sort of a Phoenix,
and it’s one that, but there’s not really the marketplace. Plus I thought, you know,
death sounds dramatic so it makes, puts butts in the seats, you know. But you’re right,
it didn’t go away, it changed. But along the way it took down a number of companies with it as
it was transforming, along with other things that we see on the internet, right? The fact
that it changes the ownership proposition, the fact that, you know, it would have been
in the early 2000s we would have said yes, like, a DVD or a blue-ray should cost this
much. Now we say, I don’t have one of those players, can’t I just stream it? You know,
like the proposition changes. It doesn’t mean that we don’t watch movies or tv, it’s
just the way that we access it has changed, and of course the model’s about how it’s
produced and financed changed as well. Do you have any games that you remember playing
that …. I put you on the spot.>>[audience member:] Like I had a [inaudible],
I had a math one where you shot an arrow at a certain angle and try and hit the target.
I don’t know. I forget all the names. But I had a whole page of them.>>[audience member:] Matt, thanks for giving
this talk today. You mentioned early on that this is sort of a potential starting point
for a larger project. I’m just curious what your plans are for this thing looking forward?>>[Payne:] Right. Yeah, so part of it is
trying to figure out like what are the stories that are embedded within The Oregon Trail
that would, what does that allow me to sort of springboard into? What I think’s fascinating
about this as a key study is that we have few, it’s hard to think of any other real
computer or video game that we have that has such a long history to it, right? So ’71,
resurrected in ’74, exists as a mostly text adventure game until ’80 and then it’s
changed again, and then we have the overhaul in ’85 and then it’s changed again in
the 90s, and indeed it continues to live on. But along the way we’re able to tell like
sort of the industrial history of the educational game market. I think too that there’s real
hope and a sense of opportunity with early on in the sort of rhetoric around it that’s
really interesting, because we’re talking about it. Of course there’s like sort of
the utopian tech, this sort of techno-utopian stuff, but these are also people who believed
before we called something a digital divide they were addressing that, right? They felt
like they were able to share this with people who might not be of means to have access to
that. And I think that’s a really important part of the story as well. So even though
the game scholar in me wants to dig super-deep into the design elements, the other part of
me wants to like offer these sort of series of expanding circles of context and to say
like why something like this matters. If for no other reason than to let us know like what
were they aiming for, and then what were the forces that pulled the rug out from under
it? Any other thoughts, questions? Advice about Fortnite? Alright, going once, going
twice. Thank you. [applause]

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