I still remember playing Oregon Trail back in 7th grade on an Apple IIe computer, hoping not to die too soon from seemingly random calamities like snakebites, or catching cholera or dysentery! First developed in the early 1970s(!) by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), Oregon Trail put players on an often-precarious journey across 19th-century America. Aside from the original, versions of Oregon Trail are still around, including Pressman’s card game, mobile versions, and it also has inspired remixes and parodies — from the space-travel game Orion Trail to the zombie apocalypse adventure Organ Trail.
Playing Oregon Trail can take about one class period — or less! (It is easy to lose, hence the famous catchphrase “You’ve died of dysentery.”) As I discovered, better than having students simply play through the seemingly endless versions of Oregon Trail, several educators have given their students the opportunity to hack and mod (modify) it, after playing. Here, the game becomes a model for students to study and analyze, and ultimately to tinker and play with. This approach is something I observed over and over again in my research of expert game-based learning teachers: the game is used as a centerpiece to drive student learning.
Having Students Modernize Oregon Trail
Last year, I helped to organize a series of “Moveable Game Jams,” which were all-day events where youth met to make games about specific social impact themes), such as immigration, climate change and future communities. At one event, the Museum of the Moving Image created an activity for students in which they would update the classic — and for many, the prototypical educational game — Oregon Trail.
The goal of the session was to compare and contrast the 1848 Oregon Trail to the transportation systems in modern-day America. First students played the original, which can still be played for free on the Internet Archive. Students were then asked, “What kind of technology is available to the pioneers in the game?” Next, using a graphic organizer, everyone brainstormed comparisons between 1848 and today. Finally, they considered how current and future smart technologies could be incorporated into the game.
Rather than coding the game, they used sheets of butcher paper to plan out how it would look on a tablet screen. Teams had to prototype one specific part of the journey (e.g. traveling between Cincinnati, Ohio and Lexington, Kentucky, and then include a conflict or a challenge (e.g. someone broke a leg).
Having Students Analyze and then Modernize Oregon Trail
Steve Isaacs, an 8th grade video game and development teacher from New Jersey, recently created a cross-discipline lesson about modding (modifying) and hacking. Students first played a classic version of Oregon Trail.