A little over 50 years ago, a student teacher in Minneapolis hit upon a novel idea to engage his eighth grade American history class in a unit on westward expansion. Don Rawitsch, with the help of two fellow student teachers, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, created a game in which students took on the role of a wagon leader making the harrowing journey from Missouri to Oregon in the mid-1800s. The game was programmed into a teletype machine connected to a mainframe computer, with results printed out on a roll of paper.
In that moment, a previously tedious history unit came to life. The class began discussing, debating and problem-solving a wide array of challenges: managing supplies, trading goods, hunting for food, fixing broken wagon wheels and forging rivers—all while avoiding death from dysentery, exhaustion or snakebites. His students loved the game!
Once the semester ended, Rawitsch put the code in a drawer. It sat there for years, until he took a job at the Minnesota Education Computer Consortium (MECC), a state-run organization bringing educational software to schools. At the time, Minnesota was a pioneering tech hub, and Steve Jobs convinced the state to incorporate the new Apple II computers into schools.
As schools began rolling out these new computers, MECC saw a growing demand for compelling educational software. Rawitsch pulled the game code out of the drawer, updated the design and created a manual for teachers. The game, now called Oregon Trail, was bundled on the Apple II computers and became MECC’s most popular offering as they expanded nationally.
Flash forward 50 years; the franchise has sold over 60 million units, inspired multiple generations of students and become a part of popular culture. While Rawitsch and his collaborators never saw any money from this success, they created an enduring franchise and helped launch the sector of game-based learning.
The story of Oregon Trail offers many relevant lessons for those wanting to harness the power of video games for learning. Since very few games made expressly for learning have come close to repeating the success of Oregon Trail, it’s worthwhile examining why this game, in particular, has been such a hit. It’s also important to note that the original game was not beloved by everyone—especially Native Americans and descendants of the tribes along the Oregon Trail. More on this important blindspot below.
One of the primary reasons for the success of Oregon Trail is the organic alignment of core game mechanics and learning objectives. Games let players step into diverse roles, take on challenges, fail safely, get feedback and iterate toward goals that the players are invested in. At their core, games are about verbs; players have agency to act. And the goal of trying to survive a harrowing journey across the country in the mid-1800s has lots of great thinking and action verbs: manage, plan, allocate, hunt, forage, fix, fight, trade, survive—to name just a few. This enables players to actively experience the historical challenges of the settlers, as opposed to passively listening to a lecture or reading a chapter about them.
Rawitsch also had a clear understanding of how the game would be used in his class. He designed the game to supplement a unit on westward expansion, and, since he had only one computer terminal, he structured the gameplay in groups to cultivate teamwork and collaborative problem-solving skills. While based on a constraint, this decision became a prominent feature of the game, encouraging debate and discussion around the players’ choices. This was fun for the class and an effective component of the educational experience. Ensuring that a game fits into a clear scope and sequence and cultivating discussion and reflection around a game is often as important as the game itself.
Rawitsch’s design respected his students’ ability to deal with challenging content. For many, the idea that you could die from dysentery in the game was scary and provocative—and truly memorable. In fact, the phrase ‘You Have Died of Dysentery’ survives as a cultural meme today.
While Rawitsch had strong design instincts, the initial success of the game was also due in no small part to a favorable ecosystem. Having an approved game that was already loaded on a school computer greatly reduced friction in the cumbersome process of finding, setting up and implementing a game in the classroom. Many educational games fail because they cause too much friction for the teacher.
Making games is hard, and most of the successful commercial game franchises have been built over many iterations. Part of the reason the Oregon Trail franchise has endured is that it has been continually optimized—based on lots of student, teacher and player feedback—to improve engagement, as well as historical accuracy. And this brings us to one of the game’s most significant flaws: its lack of any Indigenous input on the original game design, storytelling and overall framing—a shortcoming that Rawitsch has acknowledged and stressed in interviews, and which only recently has begun to be addressed.
In the initial version of the game, Rawitsch and his collaborators put very little thought into the portrayal of Native Americans, defaulting to inaccurate and offensive tropes. When it came time to update the design for the MECC version, Rawitsch realized this and immersed himself in first-person accounts from the time period. He read about how Indigenous communities often provided life-saving information to settlers traveling west, and he updated the design to include these findings.
While the updated version was more respectful, the game’s fundamental premise still sidestepped the fact that, for Native Americans, westward expansion was not a grand adventure but rather an invasion, bringing extensive trauma and loss of life and land. It took almost 50 years for a version of the game to be released in which players could take on the roles of Native Americans, and here, finally, the content was informed by Indigenous historians. Thankfully, we are now seeing a new generation of games exploring US history made entirely by Indigenous game makers, such as When Rivers Were Trails.
The combination of ongoing improvements, strong design instincts and an enabling ecosystem all helped make Oregon Trail one of the most enduring and impactful game franchises. The success of the game in the 1970s also inspired numerous companies and startups to embrace game-based learning, including Broderbund, The Learning Company, Knowledge Adventure and Davidson, as well MECC, which transitioned from a state-run agency to a for-profit company. This was the genesis of what became the ‘edutainment’ movement.