For decades, elementary school students across the country have been learning about the hardships of American westward expansion thanks to the immersive text-based video game The Oregon Trail. Whether it’s finding out your son Fart has cholera or discovering your beautiful wife Butt also has cholera, nothing makes the reality of wagon-bound settlers more visceral than this 8-bit adventure. But where did The Oregon Trail come from? Why has it had such staying power? Who are the geniuses that made those axels so damn breakable?
To find answers to some of these questions, a new piece on Vice goes straight to the source: the game’s original creators. Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger provide an oral history of The Oregon Trail, starting from its humble beginnings as a board game designed to teach eighth graders about U.S. history to its ultimate success as the flagship product of the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC).
“One of the goals I had was to make the randomness tied to the geography,” Heinemann said about the early days crafting the game in 1971. “I put all the random events into a table of probabilities so it would be easy to add new events or adjust the probability of things happening.” This idea of randomness and varying probability became the driving force of the game and resulted in thousands of wagons being overturned while attempting to ford rivers.
Ultimately, after debuting the game to a few classes of teenagers, the three creators printed out their 800 lines of code and deleted their files. It wasn’t until years later when Rawitsch was working at MECC that the game became available again, and it wasn’t until 10 years after that that it actually became a product for sale. Since then, The Oregon Trail has sold more than 65 million copies and been inducted into the Video Game Hall Of Fame. Rawitsch, Heinemann, and Dillenberger may not be household names, but they clearly deserve recognition for teaching so many children about proper hunting techniques and the harsh realities of dysentery.