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You Have Died of Dysentery: A Look Back at ‘The Oregon Trail’

October 8, 2015

Here’s the history of the educational computer game that has taught millions of students around the world about the perils of pioneer life.

Oregon Trail

In 1971, Don Rawitsch was a senior at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Eager to earn some extra cash for tuition, he took a job as a student teacher at a local middle school. Teaching the kids history was a chore and he soon grew frustrated with trying to hold their attention during class time. So, he contacted two other college students and started working on a computer game about the Oregon Trail. The game was ready to play by the end of the year.

Despite its incredibly rudimentary graphics, simplistic gameplay and bugs (computers weren’t too advanced in 1971) the kids loved The Oregon Trail. Rawitsch shared the game with other nearby school districts before printing out the source code and setting the project aside. Then in 1974, he was hired by a Minnesota company called MECC to design educational software. Rawitsch dusted off The Oregon Trail and created a more sophisticated version with innovative features and published the source code in 1978. Other editions followed, the most popular of which was the fourth one released in 1985. Many American kids spent countless hours playing this version in school computer labs all across the country.

Its now hilariously outdated graphics but addictive gameplay taught them all about an age when dysentery was often fatal and transporting over 100 pounds of meat to a wagon was nearly impossible. Naming the game’s characters after students and fellow teachers also provided lots of cruel chuckling as they succumbed to various perils during their journey west to the Willamette Valley. To date, 65 million copies of The Oregon Trail have been sold and the latest version was released for smartphones in 2012.

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