The Oregon Trail Turns 50

The Oregon Trail just turned 50 years old. The game was released on December 3, 1971 by Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger while attending Jordan Junior High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The game was originally played on teletype without the benefit of graphics.

Rawitsch, Heinemann, and Dillenberger gave the game away for free to the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium in 1974. The company developed a series of textual versions for systems including the Commodore 64 and Apple II before adding graphics to the game in 1985. The Oregon Trail was adapted for use in classrooms all across the country shortly afterwards.The Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium went on to sell over 65 million copies, raking in something like $10 million a year over the course of the following decade. The creators never saw a dime of this money.

The game was created to teach kids about life on the frontier during the nineteenth century. Players lead a group of settlers from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City, Oregon in 1847. The game is all about managing resources. Players have to buy supplies, hunt for food, and manage their inventory as random events make life increasingly difficult for them. They have to cross rivers, fix broken wagons, and keep from catching dysentery. The game ends when players reach their destination or die trying.

The Oregon Trail can be found in the National Museum of Play along with only a handful of other games. “In the 1970s and 1980s when computing access was rare, The Oregon Trail not only instructed players in American history but also introduced them to computers,” the exhibit explains. “The more than 65 million copies of the game that have been sold testify to the game’s appealing story and fun play. The Oregon Trail is perhaps the oldest continuously available video game ever made, but more importantly, it pioneered a blend of learning and play that showcases the valuable contribution games can make to education.”

The Oregon Trail is by far the most successful educational game of all time. There have been versions created for every major platform over the past 50 years. The game has been remade several times and sequels including The Yukon Trail and The Amazon Trail have been developed. The Oregon Trail became a board game in 2018.

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