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 I would compare other historical documents that cover the same time period & subjects.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?

Print Proposal

Civic history has always been something I’ve been interested in. Growing up in Baltimore, I always loved going to the historical homes and little museums scattered across the city. There was one historic site that I always loved attending—that of Babe Ruth’s home. Ruth—a Baltimore native—lived and played in the city until being sold to the Boston Red Sox in 1914. His home has been transformed into a quaint little museum filled with Ruth memorabilia and various other baseball accoutrements. The exhibits went beyond the fact that Ruth was a great baseball players; letters from friends and family reaching all the way back to his early years in Baltimore were on display. Whenever I went to this museum as a kid, it made me realize how intertwined the history of Baltimore is with baseball’s most famous star.

With this in mind, I’m curiousabout the influence that sports franchises have on the history of a city—in this case the Orioles’ influence on Baltimore. There’s a wide array great historical scholarship on baseball—by no means is it being ignored. However, in the wake of the massive narratives we’re all familiar with, smaller stories and anecdotes are left behind. A friend recently forwarded me a thread from a baseball forum discussing an Orioles pitcher from the 50’s named Steve Dalkowski. Apparently a career minor leaguer who never pitched in the major leagues, Dalkowski had the ability to throw a baseball more than a hundred miles per hour—an astounding feat. However, Dalkowski had no ability to control the location of his pitches, and this ultimately held him back. Never having heard this story before, I was fascinated. Not only that, but the thread was filled with ex-teammates of Dalkowski relating anecdotes from their times together. Through this forum, a tiny piece of baseball history that had otherwise been forgotten by the mainstream was completely rebuilt. This is what I want to investigate: through baseball message boards and forums, how is the history of the Baltimore Orioles reconstructed through the sharing of these stories? How do these stories affect the history not only the Orioles, but also the city of Baltimore itself? Ultimately, do these stories and anecdotes ultimately provide greater historical enrichment or are they merely fun little side stories?


Print Proposal: Smart Phone apps and Public History

As a recent convert to smart phones, I am more than amazed at how much I use my phone, from trying to find the cheapest price for a certain product to navigating the DC metro and electronically refilling my metro card.  As a graduate student in public history, one of the first apps I downloaded to my iPhone was the Smithsonian app.  This app provides information on the Institute’s nineteen different museums (and a zoo).  The user can access hours of operation, what exhibits are currently at each museum, and can be linked to maps, contact information, etc.   Other SI applications include “SI Main Street,” which is an oral history database that asked people from across the United States, regardless of age, to contribute stories that convey the meaning and importance of their hometown.

I am very intrigued by the concept of smart phone applications and furthermore, how Public Historians can utilize them to connect to the public.  The National Museum of the Native American put out an app to go along with their exhibit “Infinity of Nations,” which is currently on display at the NMAI in New York City.  I would like to explore the effectiveness of museum exhibit smart phone apps already in existence, as well as exploring future possibilities for the field.  How expensive are applications to design?  How do you craft an app so that it enhances a visitor’s experience without distracting from it?

Technology is the bandwagon that, whether historical sites like it or not, they are going to have to jump upon sooner or later.  Smart phone apps present many advantages.  They can be made available to the public for free, and once downloaded are easy to take with the visitor as they navigate around a historic site.  Purchasing a book or pamphlet may not be inconvenient when a visitor is touring a museum exhibition, but would a visitor want to lug around extra materials at an outdoor museum, a house museum, or a National Park?  The information, which can include far more details than a brochure, would already be in a device the visitor would carry with himself or herself.  The interactive capabilities could be quite positive as well.

The positives are there, but that begs the question: What are the barriers and/or pitfalls to utilizing this technology?  Are the costs prohibitive such that only larger institutions (a la the Smithsonian) could utilize smart phone apps?  What situations would make smart phone apps worth the time and expense?

Very preliminary research would include the above mentioned apps (The Smithsonian App, “Infinity of Nations” app, “SI Main Street” app) as well as checking out their user rating, reviews, etc.  Secondary sources would include:

Arita-Kikutani, Hiroyuki, and Kazuhiro Sakamoto.  “Using a Mobile Phone Tour to Visit the Ueno Zoological Gardens and the National Science Museum in Tokyo, Japan.”  The Journal of Museum Education 32, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 35-45.


Curating our Heritage through Social Data

Click to Watch: Blaise Aguera y Arcas demos Photosynth

For my project, I’d like to explore a topic we’ve been debating regularly in class. We’ve had frequent discussions about the eligibility of user contributions to history, especially in the digital realm. Our discussions have largely focused on written contributions to socially curated sites like Wikipedia, but I’d like to focus instead on what’s unwritten.

While textual data is subject to opinion and questions of validity arise, visual data isn’t subject to the same questionability. We have an abundance of it, too. Look on Flickr, Facebook, anywhere — there’s an abundance of factual visual data stored online. Projects like Microsoft Photosynth are a progression of this static data into the realm of spatial awareness.

What the point here really is is that we can do things with the social environment. This is now taking data from everybody — from the entire collective memory of, visually, of what the Earth looks like — and link all of that together. All of those photos become linked together, and they make something emergent that’s greater than the sum of the parts.

— Blaise Aguera y Arcas / Architect, Bing Maps

Photosynth takes photographs from around the web and compiles them into interactive models of images. If you’ve read this far and haven’t watched the TED Talk posted above, take a few minutes to see why this is a significant project from a historical perspective. Users already devote time independently to curating imagery online — on social networks and off — and Photosynth attaches meaning to it.

I’d like to explore use cases in several image databases and report on their implications for public historical knowledge. The Library of Congress hosts an extremely detailed, professionally curated image collection online, for example. We looked the other week at projects that crowdsource curation and transcription to the public. We have a wealth of publicly curated data associated with images, and I’d like to know more about how we use it, namely:

  • How do users interact with online image databases?
  • What can metadata tell us about history?
  • How can projects like Photosynth make our understanding of visual history more complete?