October 09, 2021

Matthew Farber

Lessons from The Oregon Trail

Topics: Education


Photo: Dana Davis

Like many this summer, we were finally able to venture out once again and travel -- at least locally. So we decided to visit some nearby national parks.

One of the parks we visited was located in Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, about two hours from our house in Colorado. Scotts Bluff and neighboring Gering are home to Scottsbluff National Monument and Chimney Rock -- locations along the Oregon Trail and the California Trail, Mormon Trail, and Pony Express. There, we hiked along trails, went to local museums, and attended the Oregon Trail Days Festival, which included reenactments and a town fair.

My son, who is 10, had learned about the events along Oregon Trail in school and from The Oregon Trail video game. The latest 2021 game update took a more inclusive design approach than past versions. In this version, three Indigenous historians were brought in to help guide design. Chimney Rock makes an appearance, as does Independence Rock in Wyoming. Seeing these locations IRL (“in real life,” as kids say) added depth and meaning to what he learned in school and from the game. 

“You Died of Dysentery”

To many, The Oregon Trail is the prototypical educational video game. Just mentioning it to some brings back a flood of middle school memories. First developed in the early 1970s by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), the game “went viral” in classrooms that had Apple IIe computers. At the time, most of the game was text-based. And, most of the time, players lost. The phrase “You Died of Dysentery” is often synonymous with the game. As I learned on our summer trip, Cholera was more prevalent, as were rattlesnake bites. 

Games as Mentor Texts

In addition to playing the game, I recall being inspired to learn BASIC programming to make my own version. This one was inspired by MECC’s Lemonade Stand, a business simulator where players were asked to make decisions that led to randomized outcomes, much like The Oregon Trail. Rather than dysentery, sometimes it rained during lemonade sales. In my game, players ran a video store where VHS cassettes were either not rewound by customers or were occasionally not returned or lost.

In my research, I found that some educators use games as mentor texts, models that students can refer to as they design their own games. Mentor texts are common in English language arts classes as a strategy to help developing writers. For instance, when writing a sonnet poem, it can help to have several examples available to refer to in the process. Similarly, game-based learning is an experience that can inspire children to develop their own voice.

Back when I coded a video rental store game, I had to use a difficult to learn programming language. Nowadays, kids can make remixes of The Oregon Trail, Lemonade Stand, or any game using free coding apps like Scratch, from MIT’s Lifelong Kindergarten, or Twine, a choose-your-own-adventure interactive fiction tool. There is also curriculum and a downloadable  world for Minecraft: Education Edition that can be played, studied, and remixed!

Games as Spaces to Develop Social and Emotional Learning

In my new book, Gaming SEL: Games as Transformational to Social and Emotional Learning, I share how games can enable children to practice emotions in spaces that are free from actualized consequences. With thoughtful guidance from parents, caregivers, and teachers, games can help children manage emotions, perspective-take, demonstrate empathic concern, and exhibit prosocial behaviors.

When using a game like The Oregon Trail as a mentor text, children can develop self- and social awareness -- essential social and emotional learning (SEL) competencies. For instance, when making games, children consider the experiences of others, as well as the player of the game for whom they are designing. Through this process, historical empathy and perspective-taking can be cultivated.

Of course, having a supportive educator or caregiver guiding experiences can be crucial. With that in mind, I recommend deepening learning beyond The Oregon Trail.

In collaboration with the Indian Land Tenure Foundation and Michigan State University’s Games for Entertainment and Learning Lab, When Rivers Were Trails was published in 2019. A counter-narrative to Westward expansion, this award-winning game can be played for free on desktop and mobile devices. This game can be used for a critical game literacy assignment for ELA and social studies students. Or it can be played casually from home as a way to better understand the perspectives of others.  

The game is based on the Anishinaabe, who were displaced from their lands during the Allotment Act in the 1890s. Different from the The Oregon Trail game, which brought in consultants in its design phase, When Rivers Were Trails ​​was “a sovereign game,” an experience entirely directed and informed by Indigenous developers. As a result, players can develop a cultural understanding of the Anishinaabeg with a deep sense of authenticity.

Author's Bio

Matthew Farber, Ed.D. is an assistant professor at the University of Northern Colorado, where he founded the Gaming SEL Lab. He has been invited to the White House, authored several books and papers, and frequently collaborates with UNESCO MGIEP and Games for Change. His latest book is Gaming SEL: Games as Transformational to Social and Emotional Learning.

A Note From ThinkFun

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