Oregon Trail game co-inventor talks pioneer survival and life lessons

In a new Reddit interview, Don Rawitsch reveals his thoughts about creating the educational and entertaining Oregon Trail computer game. Plus, his idea on how the game could become a movie.

Bonnie Burton
Journalist Bonnie Burton writes about movies, TV shows, comics, science and robots. She is the author of the books Live or Die: Survival Hacks, Wizarding World: Movie Magic Amazing Artifacts, The Star Wars Craft Book, Girls Against Girls, Draw Star Wars, Planets in Peril and more! E-mail Bonnie.
Bonnie Burton
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Are you tough enough to survive blizzards, disease and snake bites in The Oregon Trail game?

Video screenshot by Bonnie Burton/CNET

Any folks stuck in school in the '80s when they'd rather have been at the video arcade have fond memories of the educational DOS game The Oregon Trail.

It let kids play a computer game and learn about American history at the same time. Players guided a party of inexperienced settlers in a covered wagon from Missouri to Oregon's Willamette Valley via the Oregon Trail.

That may not sound like fun at first. But once the critters, disease and complete lack of survival skills entered the game, it all started to feel like a zombie movie without the zombies.

In fact, the game was so hard to win that most of us died of dysentery or the measles before we ever saw a glimpse of our final homestead. At least we left pretty, pixelated tombstones though.

Teachers Don Rawitsch, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann created the game in 1971 to encourage kids to learn more about American pioneer life in the 19th century. Little did they know the text-based adventure game would go on to be a beloved classic that's still with us today.

You can even play the 1992 version of The Oregon Trail in your browser, thanks to the Internet Archive.

In a candid Ask Me Anything interview on Reddit, Rawitsch answered questions from fans who wanted to know anything and everything about the stories behind the making of The Oregon Trail and why the game continues to be so popular. Here are some highlights:

On how it feels to be the creator of such a legendary game:
Oregon Trail "has given me visibility and the chance to communicate with many people interested in how the game came to be. For example, I have given presentations at MIT and Carnegie-Mellon."

On whether he feels like history is a good candidate for acquiring knowledge through simulation games:
"Absolutely. It gives people a chance to 'feel' history by participating. It provides a way to 'test' the results of alternative historical outcomes. But history is also enlivened by stories, so you need to read it as well."

Survive tips for beginners playing the game:
"Keeping up a good food stock is important to survival. The three roles you can play were added so that a beginner has a better chance to survive [as a banker], but a seasoned pioneer can give him/herself a tougher challenge as a farmer."

On the research behind the game:
"I researched a lot, including reading diaries from real settlers on the trail. I used this info to adjust the probabilities in the game that certain events would happen.

"The later versions of the laptop game are quite impressive, with lots of new historical stuff added. What I have always liked about our original version is that without all the media, you can focus on the simulation model, the cause and effect."

On the strangest bug he encountered while making the game:
"Once some kids from Alaska wrote...claiming to have a foolproof method for winning. They entered a negative number for food-spending, which the program subtracted from their money, which actually added to their money. They got rich. We quickly added an input check to all money questions to reject negative numbers!"

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"Fording the river" in The Oregon Trail game isn't as easy as it looks.

Video screenshot by Bonnie Burton/CNET

On whether he'd ever recommend players ford the river under any circumstance:
"Fording the river usually works if the water is shallow (say 2 to 3 feet). River depth is displayed for the player in the personal computer version of the game."

On whether he was concerned that most kids just wanted to hunt or shoot bandits in the '80s version and ignored the history elements of the game:
"We realized that shooting would have that 'arcade' popularity, but actually if all you do is hunt, you are likely to waste time and hit the Rockies during winter. Not the best strategy. It's hard to ignore history in OT -- the forts, what things cost, the weather, the difficulty of the trip for the pioneers."

On rumors of any Easter eggs in the game:
"Not in the way we think of it today. However, sometimes you might encounter a tombstone epitaph from a previous player."

On possibly releasing the original game on Android:
"The rights to Oregon Trail currently belong to a publisher, who could and did create a smartphone version of the game. Definitely for iOS and I thought for Android. However, these versions vary from the original OT and the subsequent...versions. They play more like an arcade game. I suspect that a historical model is not involved."

On anything he wanted to include in the game but had to cut:
"It would have been interesting to add a Native American viewpoint, perhaps a character who watches the wagons come into that territory."

On whether he made a lot of money from the game:
"Actually, no, except that it led me to great jobs in the ed-tech industry. When I brought OT to [the developer], we were still 5 years away from the notion that there would be a consumer software market. Who knew that personal computers would emerge? We were more interested in sharing OT with other teachers and students. In another era, I might have owned an island by now!"

On what he'd have written on his tombstone:
"He helped kids learn."

On whether he ever wanted the Oregon Trail to be made into a movie:
"I already have a movie idea. Two kids are playing OT and suddenly get sucked into the computer and find themselves in a wagon train. Will they ever get home?"

On what he learned about life from Oregon Trail:
"Plan ahead. Be patient. If you persevere, you'll find your green valley. Even if the water's deep, sometimes you just have to caulk your wagon and head out from shore."