Print Proposal – Oregon Trail

Poor Carol Ann!


My proposal for a print project would be an analysis on Oregon Trail, one of the most iconic educational games of all time. Mike recently put up some great gaming monitor reviews on his blog, Likely exposed to you in elementary school, the game has been used in classrooms around the nation as an enjoyable but informative break for school children & teachers.  Oregon Trail was not only fun to play but also likely became the foundation and spark of exploration into the history of the old west for many children.    The game is one that both hardcore & causal gamers alike have played and enjoyed in their earlier years. Oregon Trail has taught people many things besides quick reflexes and what Dysentery is.


Originally the game was created with the goal to teach school children the harshness of pioneer life on the literal trail (it connects the Missouri River to valleys in Oregon; over 2,000 miles).  For many people the Oregon Trail was their introduction to this piece of history and became a large influence.  Reaching its peak in the 80’s & 90’s Oregon Trail has had recent flirtations with invading the social gaming realm.

One of the major areas I would want to cover in project was the research and groundwork used to create the original games.  Where did the creators draw of the line from being a historically accurate simulation to a game of enjoyment? I would compare other historical documents that cover the same time period & subjects.  How similar are they?  Do they tend to cover different subjects?  Is there something that Oregon Trail covers that a historical piece of text simply can’t.

Next naturally I would want to look into how the game was used in academic environments.  I would like to research the importance of ‘playing’ in that part of history and how it directly correlates to learning about that subject.  Was it just a cute ‘activity’ to get school children comfortable with computers or was in worked in professor’s history curriculum for the old west?

Some other questions I would like to explore with this project

  • How accurate are the depictions of pioneer in the game?
  • To what degree was the game being used as an historical/educational tool?
  • What research was done to create the game?
  • Could the original game still serve the same purpose today?
  • Why has the popularity in classrooms died off?
  • Is there potential for ‘updating’ the game for further historical use?

2 Replies to “Print Proposal – Oregon Trail”

  1. Great idea and great game 🙂 I would point you to a few things. A former colleague, Dave Lester, wrote his thesis on Oregon Trail, I’m not seeing links to his work online aside form this, but if you do decide to run with this he could point you to some of the material he worked through.

    Along with that, the preserving virtual worlds project is planning on attempting to preserve 5 different versions of Oregon Trail, see it is interesting to think about how persistent the game is and how it has changed over time.

    Oh, and you can play the game in your browser via this emulator 🙂

    Now all this aside. If you do decide to write a paper about the game the trick is going to be to scope this tightly. In terms of your questions here are some comments. 1. The game isn’t accurate. No one goes off on their own and hunts 8000 lbs of food for fun on the Oregon trail, but I know that is what I did in the game. Instead of accuracy I would suggest exploring something like how well did the game fulfill the vision of it’s creators. For that matter, the thing that amazes me is the staying power of this game, for example, see all of the “you have died of dysentery” stuff out there.

    Now your other questions strike me as less historical questions. That said, I would be happy to hear a spirited defense of any of them.

  2. Hey! I’m intrigued by your idea for your project, I think this is a really fascinating topic to study. Historical games can have so many layers that it can be really tricky to narrow down what you want to focus on. I think your questions about its use and popularity are valuable, but probably difficult to answer. They might require the use of very widespread polls or surveys to really gain a clear understanding.

    I think tjowens’ idea to explore how well the game has fulfilled its creators’ vision would be far more feasible and useful. So often projects change and evolve after being released and used by the public, it would be helpful to understand how/if that has occurred with this particular game.

    I’m curious about whether or not you would be interested in looking at how narrativity affects the game. Narrative is such a traditional and essential part of textual history and has proven difficult (if not almost impossible) for historians to escape. I wonder whether or not you’re able to see a form of narrativity present within this game? Most of the historical games I’ve seen have still incorporated some type of narrative, although it may be a slightly different version than we see in monographs and articles. It could be an interesting exploration, especially within the context of how history is communicated. And, if you don’t think narrativity plays a role in the game, it would be interesting to study how that changes the history that is conveyed.

    Also, with regards to the accuracy (or, as tjowens pointed out, the inaccuracy) of the game, I would recommend reading Hans Kellner’s piece “Getting the story crooked” in his book Language and Historical Representation. He questions the role of “accuracy” within history and the importance of the lenses we use when we write history.

    I think the Oregon Trail affords you many possible avenues for your project. Best of luck in your work!

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