Monday, July 20, 2009

The Oregon Trail

The other day when seeing one of my students playing an online computer game, I was reminded of a highly enjoyable educational game that I used to play in my early teens. We quickly searched online for a playable version of The Oregon Trail, a computer game developed in the 70's that is uniquely sophisticated for its standards and traces the historic national trail that led to much of the expansion of the American territories in the West. The game was developed by three students at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota using a mainframe computer and became an instant success and began serving schools throughout Minnesota and beyond. A game like this is highly appropriate for students to learn an essential component of American history and its unique interface (a DOS-based, interactive and diagnostic format) enable the student to truly live out the historical experience. During the game, students assume the role of a wagon leader who is charged with migrating across the famed Oregon Trail to settle in the newfound western territory. Today, with many parts of the trail, recognized as national historic places, the overland route provides a highly appropriate study on the widespread settlement of the American West that stretches from east of the Missouri to the Oregon territory. In fact along the trail, one can exhume large historical footprints that traverse formidable annals of American history including the fur trade, the Lewis and Clark expedition, the California Gold Rush, the spread of the Catholic faith, the later development and uses of the Transcontinental Railroad and a study of the wondrous creature of the American plains, the majestic Bison. The online game is a good replication of the actual trail and can help students experience the long road to Oregon through the eyes of a migrating settler. This is essential to help them understand the challenges faced by the early settlers, and in fact during the game, wagon wheels can break off, fellow travelers can drown or perish from illness and food, hunting and clothing are essential for survival. Further, much of the trail passes over actual historic sites and thus, provides a good geographical reference for the curious gamer. Importantly, for the student, the game can stir the imagination and time can be well spent studying American history through a unique gaming forum. Unlike modern games, the Oregon Trail requires thought and strategy and importantly, provides a unique virtual window to the breathful grandeur and expanse of the American countryside where the ubiquitous dream of finding freedom and a way of life beyond the horizon is ever so real. The game can be played online at

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