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The Oregon Trail is perhaps the most successful educational computer game of all time, but its humble origins include a stint in a converted janitor's closet and the casual deletion of every line of its initial code. In this episode of Throwback, Erin traces the history of your favorite computer lab activity.

The surprising history of the Oregon Trail changed computing, helped Apple achieve classroom dominance, and gave countless young people digital dysentery.

If you were a teacher walking the hallways  of Bryant Junior High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the winter of 1971, you might have  found it odd that students were congregating just outside of a janitor’s closet.

Were the  kids canoodling? Smoking the devil’s lettuce?

What you probably wouldn’t have guessed was  that the teenagers were lining up to play a text-based computer adventure game about  the westward movement of the 19th century that involved hauling food and watching your  loved ones die of pneumonia. It’s the game that went on to transform classrooms, popularize  Apple, and nearly sent Barbie to the frontier to suffer doll dysentery. It’s the story of The  Oregon Trail, and it’s next on Throwback.

Welcome back to the series where we take a deep  dive into some of the most fascinating pop culture stories and events you might remember from your  childhood. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and I, too, was once a virtual settler embarking on a  dangerous 2000-mile journey from Independence, Missouri to the promise of a better life in  Willamette Valley, Oregon. I forded rivers, took aim at deer and rabbits—those freaking  bunnies were so fast, and I don’t think I ever hit a single one—checked out virtual  versions of iconic landmarks like Chimney Rock, tended to the sick, and wrote my own name  on a tombstone when I finally succumbed to a germ I hadn’t even known existed.

It was all part of life on The Oregon Trail, perhaps the most successful educational  computer game of all time. In the 1970s, 1980s, and part of the 1990s, kids  across the country learned about this pioneering part of American  history in computer class, typing in commands and hoping they had enough food  to feed their party. It was a lesson in history, economics, and pure survival—not only for  players, but for the game’s creators, too.

I hadn’t heard of Don Rawitsch until we started  researching this video, but it turns out he helped shape my childhood. In the early 1970s,  Rawitsch was a cool teacher, an educator who wanted to make classrooms fun and engaging. While he was a 21-year-old student himself at Carleton College in Minnesota, Rawitsch was also  teaching an eighth grade high school history class in north Minneapolis.

He sometimes dressed up as  historical figures, including Meriwether Lewis, and encouraged kids to take an  active interest in history. In the fall of 1971, Rawitsch decided he wanted  to teach his lesson on westward expansion a little differently. He started to work on a board game  in which players could follow a map of the Oregon Trail.

In the 1800s, thousands of pioneers had  traveled westward in covered wagons, covering 10 to 20 miles a day on a six-month trip. Rawitsch  wanted to communicate to his students just how harrowing this journey was, and how everything  from bad weather to disease could prove fatal. While Rawitsch was working on the board game,  he started discussing it with his two roommates, Bill Heinemann and Paul Dillenberger.

Both  were aspiring teachers who also attended Carleton College and taught math at schools  in south Minneapolis. The difference was that they knew how to do some computer programming. They suggested to Rawitsch that The Oregon Trail would make a perfect text-based computer game.

Rawitsch was intrigued, but there was a problem. His lesson was set to begin in just two weeks. That was enough time to work up a board game, but would it be enough time to program  an entire computer game?

Heinemann and Dillenberger assured him they could do it. If that sounds impossible, try to take into consideration the state of computing at  the time. If schools had a computer at all, it was a giant mainframe that dominated a  room.

Students would use a teletype machine, which was essentially a typewriter connected to a  phone line, to type commands. There was no screen, and no graphics. While writing the game’s  800 lines of code took up a lot of time, Heinemann and Dillenberger didn’t have to worry  about a complex user interface.

At the end of the two weeks, they had the game loaded and  ready to go. In fact, the two of them gave it a test run at Bryant Junior High School, which  is where the students stood waiting their turn to play at the teletype machine in the converted  janitor’s closet. Sorry, “the computer room.” The initial response was promising, but how would  Rawitsch’s own class respond to it?

And how would this simple text-based adventure game somehow find  itself in school computers across the country? Don Rawitsch wheeled his school’s teletype  machine into his history class on December 3, 1971 with a mixture of trepidation and  excitement. He explained to his students that he had a game for them called The Oregon  Trail, and that they would be separated into groups to play.

While this allowed students  to be engaged, it was also a practical matter. The school only had one teletype machine. Students quickly developed a simple division of labor.

They would pick the group member they  felt was the best typist and sit that person in front of the teletype to input commands  and receive responses from the program, which was loaded in the mainframe computer. Another student would be in charge of the budget, keeping track of money spent on supplies like  food and clothing. And another would follow the map provided by Rawitsch that gave them a visual  reference for the trail and its landmarks.

The teletype would spit out questions on printer  paper, which operated at a speed of 10 characters per second. Originally, the game just gave you  some money and then let you loose on the trail—the classic difficulty levels of banker and two  other professions that no one ever played as were added later. The game would ask questions like: How much do you want to spend on your oxen team?

Do you want to eat poorly, moderately, or well? Bad illness—medicine used. Do you want to hunt or continue?

Answers were typed in numerically. The program would then inform players of their progress. A  hallmark of The Oregon Trail is that life in the game was horrible, and that anything from disease  to starvation could result in your dramatic and untimely demise (the threat of drowning while  fording a river wouldn’t arise until later iterations of the game).

To survive, you’d have to  hope you spent wisely on food and were a good shot when aiming at deer. That’s because despite being  a primitive technology, the teletype could still gauge how quickly a player could shoot down their  dinner. To fire a weapon, players typed BANG, and the computer measured how accurately and  how quickly they typed it.

If someone’s finger slipped and your team accidentally typed  BONG, your party might starve to death. Anybody who’s played The Oregon Trail—and  that’s most kids who grew up in the 1980s and ‘90s—remembers that the game offered more  gruesome ways to die than a Friday the 13th movie. But was the real Oregon Trail that dangerous?

In a word, yes. And actually, maybe worse. In 2019, The San Francisco Gate interviewed Lee  Kreutzer, an expert on the actual Oregon Trail, to find out how obstacles in the game stacked  up to the problems faced by settlers.

Kreutzer addressed that most popular of Oregon  Trail deaths, dysentery. For those blissfully unfamiliar, dysentery is usually a bacterial  infection in the intestines that results in severe diarrhea and dehydration. Left untreated, it can  be fatal.

While people did contract dysentery, the leading cause of death on the Oregon Trail  was probably cholera, another infection that also causes gastrointestinal distress. Cholera was  contracted by settlers drinking contaminated water from bacteria-infested rivers and streams. Settlers rarely boiled anything because they didn’t know anything about pathogens.

Though not represented in the game, freak accidents were also  responsible for interrupting trips. Women’s skirts would get caught underneath  wagon wheels, dragging them underneath and crushing them to death under massive  carriages carrying cattle or supplies. Men sometimes inadvertently shot themselves  or others with their hunting rifles.

If you managed to not get crushed under a wagon  or shot in the face, you could still be struck by lightning or drown during a river crossing. While a watery demise was common in the game, real settlers usually had the good sense to pay for a  ferry across the river when one was available. If you survived all that, you could still  look forward to the occasional murder—tempers could flare during a six-month journey,  after all—or simply losing your mind, both outcomes that were not reflected in  the game.

All in all, an estimated one in 10 settlers attempting the journey died, their  bodies buried in shallow graves along the trail. As morbid as The Oregon Trail could be at times,  it wasn’t quite as dangerous as the real thing. Even though The Oregon Trail would eventually lead  students on countless voyages of deadly diarrhea, kids loved it.

Right from the start, it  was a huge hit in Rawitsch’s history class and he soon entered it into the timeshare  system that allowed programs to be used by the entire Minneapolis school district. Without  any prompting from Rawitsch or other teachers, kids had formed collaboratives, nominating  the best student for each role and working together toward the common goal of reaching  Oregon. It made learning history fun.

And then, at the end of the  semester, Rawitsch deleted it. This wasn’t some complex computer game that he had  spent months or years working on. It was a simple, text-based learning tool that appeared to have  outlived its usefulness.

Rawitsch’s time at the high school was up, and both he and his two  roommates were about to graduate. There was no reason to think The Oregon Trail would resurface. What Rawitsch didn’t know was that classrooms were about to undergo a radical transformation—first in  Minnesota, and then throughout the country.

Since the 1960s, the state had been home to a number  of computer hardware manufacturers like IBM and UNIVAC, and a number of groups and educators  believed computers belonged in classrooms. In 1973, they formed the Minnesota Educational  Computing Consortium, or MECC. One of MECC’s key figures, a math teacher named Dale LaFrenz,  believed there was going to be a revolution in education in the coming year, and MECC managed  to get teletypes in classrooms across the state.

Hardware, of course, needs software. And MECC  got a major break in 1974, when LaFrenz got a call from a professor at Carleton College who  told him he knew a man who had been drafted into military service but was a conscientious objector  and was looking for work. His name?

Don Rawitsch. Rawitsch had originally wanted to be a social  studies teacher but needed to find a job that met the government’s standard of benefiting  society for those refusing to enter the war. He went to work for MECC as a liaison between  the group and local community colleges.

As the group began building a library of software titles,  and Rawitsch had an idea. After consulting with Heinemann and Dillenberger, he told MECC about  The Oregon Trail. Fortunately, he had printed out the code for the game before deleting it three  years prior.

Over Thanksgiving weekend of 1974, he entered all 800 lines into MECC’s system. There were still no computer screens and therefore no graphics at this point on the devices being  used to play the game, but Rawitsch was still able to make some improvements. He was able to  reference actual diaries written by settlers that were stored at the University of Minnesota  library.

That gave him accurate prices of goods and it also gave him information on how frequently  those familiar mishaps like a broken wagon wheel or a thunderstorm occurred. If a settler had a 20  percent chance of running out of water on the real Oregon Trail, for example, then players would have  a 20 percent chance of running out in the game. Rawitsch also made events geographically accurate.

It was most common to see snow or deal with an oxen injury beginning at the South Pass in the  Rockies 950 miles into the trip, so that’s where players would begin to see them in the game. There was also the matter of how the game portrayed Native Americans. The earliest version  of the game took a cue from old Westerns and made Native Americans one of the villains.

At  MECC, Rawitsch realized that Native Americans, historically, were actually more likely to  help people on the Oregon Trail, which was reflected in the updated game play. The villain  characters were reimagined as generic ruffians. The new, more historically accurate version of  The Oregon Trail hit the MECC system in 1975 and was soon being accessed thousands of times  a month by schools all over Minnesota.

In fact, it was the second most popular program on  the system. Only an early email program got more of that sweet teletype traffic. Don Rawitsch had gone from drawing a crude map of the trail on paper to seeing a  computerized version of the game being played by thousands of students in the state.

But  The Oregon Trail was just getting started. Remember MECC’s basic mission statement? That computers were headed for every classroom in the country?

By the end of  the 1970s, that was becoming a reality. Hardware manufacturers had been successful  in developing and producing desktop personal computers with dedicated processors, keyboards,  and screens. Around 1978, one of MECC’s coordinators went to a conference in California  where he was shocked by the tiny computer he saw.

MECC soon went to California to negotiate  with a young Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Their Apple II computer was sleek,  compact, powerful, and perfect for schools. MECC ordered 500 of them to distribute across  Minnesota, each one loaded with MECC software like an updated version of The Oregon Trail.

The partnership between MECC and Apple blossomed, and soon Apple found themselves at the forefront  of classroom computing. School districts bought computers from Apple and acquired software  from MECC, which had built up a library of educational titles like Number Munchers and Word  Munchers. Schools and even entire states paid a fee and were then allowed to copy the software as  many times as they liked to distribute it to any of their classrooms equipped with Apple IIs.

By  the early 1980s, roughly 5000 school districts, or one-third of all districts in the country,  had a deal in place with MECC. The game was given increasingly better graphics. Together,  these developments meant The Oregon Trail was everywhere, and with six-color monitors and the  ability to etch their own names on tombstones, kids considered the game as much a part of their  school week as Trapper Keepers and square pizza.

The Oregon Trail and other titles were so  successful that MECC no longer needed to be tied to the state. It started making games available  at retail, where a growing number of consumers who now owned home computers were buying both  entertainment and educational software. In 1991, MECC was sold off to venture capitalists for $5.25  million.

It was later acquired in 1996 by SoftKey, later named The Learning Company, which was bought  by Mattel in 1999 for $3.8 billion. That’s where Barbie comes in. Mattel supposedly wanted to  slot some of their popular characters into the game.

But by that point in the late 1990s,  most of the company’s best programmers had left, and The Learning Company didn’t seem to be  as valuable as the purchase price indicated, causing Mattel’s stock price to plummet. Mattel’s shareholders sued and won a $122 million settlement. MECC faded away in 1999.

The Oregon Trail is now owned by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. With over 65 million copies  sold and a place in the Strong Museum’s Video Game Hall of Fame, it’s become a classic. The game has gone through several versions and expansions over the years, including mobile  games and even a game called The Amazon Trail, which took players on a trip up the Amazon  River.

And while companies have tried to upgrade its graphics or game play over the  years, that was never really the point. For millions of school kids, The Oregon Trail  was an opportunity to make some very adult choices—choices about family, about travel,  and about survival. The Oregon Trail was a 19th century settler simulation, but it was  also looking forward to a future that would be driven by technology.

Walking into a computer  classroom and navigating the trail was early practice for using the computers that would  come to dominate their world. Of course, today, it also provides a hit of nostalgia. You can  even play The Oregon Trail II in your browser.

I’m still lousy at shooting deer and rabbits,  though I did learn, in researching this script, that when the game tells you “you were only able  to carry 200 pounds of food back” from your metric ton of animal carcasses, it was actually meant  to represent the reality that additional food would spoil, not that your team was too lazy to  bring back the life-sustaining digital venison. So what about Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and  Paul Dillenberger? Heinemann and Dillenberger realized their dreams of becoming teachers and  have since retired in Minnesota.

Rawitsch is still working as a tech consultant and has recently been  working on a new educational software venture. None of them could have foreseen what The  Oregon Trail would become, and they weren’t thinking of profit participation. None of those  million-dollar transactions involved them.

But all three have expressed satisfaction that  the game they created has been so instrumental in education over the years. And in 1995, the  three of them received public acknowledgement of their achievement when a new version of the game  debuted at the Mall of America in Minneapolis. With a real bison standing nearby, the  three signed their names to a giant map of The Oregon Trail.

Unlike many of the  players, they had made it to the end. I’m Erin McCarthy and I need to go buy  some oxen. If you have any suggestions for a future installment of Throwback,  leave them in the comments below.

But please don’t tell me I died  of dysentery. Thanks for watching.