When Kevin Driscoll was a kid, he loved playing The Oregon Trail in his school computer lab with friends. Driscoll enjoyed the novelty of playing a video game at school – and the fact that everyone could play together.
In the game – designed to teach children about the realities of 19th-century pioneer life on the Oregon Trail – players take on the role of wagon leaders who must guide a party of settlers. Along the way, they must buy supplies, hunt for food, and make myriad choices.
The game ends when the player reaches Oregon, or if they die along the trail; death can occur as a result of factors such as disease, starvation, lack of cold weather clothing, snake bites, and hunting accidents.
“Every kid in the class had an opinion on the best strategy to use,” said Driscoll, now an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. “I remember children singing about the right number of oxen to buy before leaving. And everyone could laugh at a joke about death from dysentery. In my world, no other game was as universal as The Oregon Trail.
When it comes to games, the 1980s era that Driscoll grew up in would prove to be a time of transformation.
Driscoll said the hype around personal computers was “overwhelming,” with thousands of suburban public schools buying PCs such as the Apple IIe and IBM PCjr. The result was a series of “educational software” — most of which was not created by educators at all, according to Driscoll.
“Despite their name, personal computers were still very expensive and difficult to use,” Driscoll said. “So while the pedagogical benefits of computers in the classroom were often overstated, they created opportunities for teachers and students to have convenient access to technology that would otherwise have been out of reach.”
That’s what led Driscoll to use The Oregon Trail — which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary — as an activity in two of his UVA classes.
In “Comparative Histories of the Internet” – the basis of Driscoll’s new book, “The Modem World”, which comes out April 19 – students learn about the role of K-12 students and teachers in the development of personal computing.
UVA Today caught up with Driscoll to find out more.
Q. Why did you choose to use The Oregon Trail in your Comparative Histories of the Internet course? How did you feel it connected?
A. The objective of the course is to examine different ways of telling the story of the Internet. The Oregon Trail gives us the opportunity to learn about the contributions of educators, parents, and children. Before class, we read an article by historian Joy Lisi Rankin about the pioneering use of time-sharing computers by universities and K-12 schools in the 1960s and 1970s. early educational networks developed techniques that would not appear until many years later on commercial services.
I also assign The Oregon Trail when teaching media history, a required course for all media studies majors. Students learn to think critically about continuity and change in media systems and global texts. We examine early newspapers, listen to radio soap operas and watch classic Hollywood films.
Now we also study interactive media such as PC software and video games. Beyond the content or mechanics of a game like The Oregon Trail, we also want to think about how the code was written, how it was turned into a product, distributed to schools, and eventually kept for that we can play in the present.
Q. From an educational software perspective, why was gaming so important? How did K-12 students and teachers play a role?
A. The Oregon Trail was originally developed for use in a middle school classroom. Later, through the work of the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, other teachers adopted the game for their own classrooms. In the 1980s graphics were added and The Oregon Trail was packaged and sold for personal computers such as the Atari 800 and Commodore 64. The version I encountered in the school computer lab has was released for the Apple IIe in 1985. (Today, Driscoll students use an emulator to run this software in their browsers.)
Q. Did your students know the game before the lesson? What kind of feedback have you received from them?
A. Yes, I find UVA students are generally familiar with The Oregon Trail. It’s up there with Tetris or Pokemon or The Sims. For this reason, I ask them to also experiment with some of the lesser-known programs published by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium. One of my favorites is Lake Odell, a delightful simulation of freshwater fish life.
Q. Do you agree with some people who think The Oregon Trail may have been the most influential video game ever made?
A. It would be a fun debate in the late night dorms. The boring “teacher move” is to answer your question with another question: influence whom and in what ways?
My hunch is that The Oregon Trail’s legacy is less about its educational goals or game mechanics and more about a cohort of young people discovering together that computers can be colorful, loud, and fun. It’s about several million children playing with floppy disks at school and learning to hunt and peck on a QWERTY keyboard. These same children grew up alongside the boom of dotcoms, the crowd web and the platforms we rely on today.
Q. Is there anything else you would like to add?
A. Software like The Oregon Trail is an important part of our cultural heritage. For this reason, it is urgent that we make software preservation an institutional priority. Today, I can bring The Oregon Trail to my students thanks to the work of enthusiasts who have recovered data from old discs and produced faithful simulations of old computers. Yet this vital work still exists in a legal gray area.
Fortunately, there is growing recognition of the need to preserve legacy software and make it accessible for the future. For anyone who shares these concerns, I suggest contacting the Software Preservation Networkof which the University of Virginia is a member.