That’s Edutainment: The Oregon Trail (1971-1985)

Welcome to That’s Edutainment, which looks at entertainment video games of the past and whether they hold up today. This inaugural edition of the feature provides historical context for the idea of ‘edutainment’ and discusses the first landmark title in the genre, The Oregon Trail. 

While the idea of ‘educational entertainment’ or ‘edutainment’ – facilitating learning in an entertaining manner – is most popularly associated with media in the 1980s and 1990s, it is hardly a modern concept.

The notion that entertainment could exist in an educational context began in the Renaissance and was further developed by seventeenth-century Czech philosopher John Amos Comenius, who championed the idea of ‘school by play’ in a 1630 text of the same name. Subsequent examples of educational entertainment include Benjamin Franklin’s eighteenth-century work Poor Richard’s Almanack and, much later, an animated educational film about the virtues of dental hygiene made by Walt Disney in 1992.

John Amos Comenius, often referred to as “the father of modern education.” Credit: Wikipedia

Despite its centuries-old background, the term ‘edutainment’ was first used in the early 1970s; Robert Heyman reportedly created the portmanteau in 1973 to describe documentaries produced for the National Geographic Society. (Claims that Walt Disney coined the term in a 1954 article about his company’s True-Life Adventures nature films are unsubstantiated; while he argues in the article for an implicit overlap between educational- and entertainment-oriented media, Disney does not mention the term ‘edutainment’ itself.) Disney nevertheless provides a useful illustration of mid-twentieth century attitudes toward the relationship between entertainment and educational media:

The theory that a nominal gap exists between what is generally regarded as ”entertainment” and what is defined as “educational” represents, we have long held, an old and untenable viewpoint. … The True-Life Adventures are made, and will continue to be made, primarily as entertainment. They are not designed specifically for conventional education. But in my definition, the overlap is implicit. To the extent that they are instructive, to that degree we must admit that they may also teach. (Walt Disney, “Educational Values in Factual Nature Pictures”, Educational Horizons, Vol 33, No 2, We Also Teach (Winter, 1954) 82 at 82. Accessed via JSTOR.)

Of all the media labelled as edutainment since the 1970s, few are as popular or as prominent as educational computer software and video games. Edutainment games first emerged on the market in the early 1980s and quickly rose in popularity; companies such as Brøderbund, the Learning Company, and Humongous Entertainment became household names by developing and producing edutainment software.

Before reviewing edutainment gaming in its heyday, it is essential to start with a title that, while regarded today as the first entry in the edutainment genre, was created before ‘edutainment’ was even coined as a phrase: The Oregon Trail. In Oregon Trail, the player leads a pioneer family moving westward across the United States toward Oregon in the nineteenth century.

The development of Oregon Trail began with three Minnesota college students studying to become teachers in 1971. Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger were in their senior year at rural Carleton College, approximately forty miles outside Minneapolis. All three were in the midst of student teacher placements at local schools.

Photos of The Oregon Trail‘s creators from the 1972 Carleton College yearbook. L-R: Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, Paul Dillenberger. Credit: Motherboard

An eighth-grade U.S. history teacher had assigned Rawitsch with teaching a class about the westward movement across the United States and provided three weeks to create a lesson plan. Rawitsch sought to make learning about the westward movement more entertaining for his students:

…I thought of ways to make it more interesting than the usual approach. I started experimenting with what a board game might look like, with a massive map of the western United States. It had not occurred to me to put this on a computer, since I had no computer programming experience. (Don Rawitsch, quoted in “The Forgotten History of ‘The Oregon Trail,’ As Told By Its Creators” by Kevin Wong, Medium, February 15, 2017)

In 1971, computers were a rarity in Minnesota classrooms. Schools used a teletype device, an electromechanical typewriter which communicated with a minicomputer housed in a secure building.

A teletype machine manufactured by the Teletype Corporation. The 1971 Oregon Trail would have been played on a similar device. Credit: Dan Century on Flickr

Heinemann, who had studied computer programming in his junior year, considered writing a computer program that would “interact with a human through language” but had difficulty coming up with a concept. When Rawitsch shared his ideas for a board game with Heinemann and Dillenberger, the possibility of turning a board game into an interactive program immediately became apparent to his friends, both of whom had programming experience.

The only catch was that Rawitsch, having spent a week developing his board game, needed the program in two weeks. Heinemann and Dillenberger spent the next two weeks in the school’s ‘computer lab’ – a janitor’s closet with two student chairs and a teletype – creating flowcharts and coding the game in the BASIC programming language.

Part of a flowchart for MECC’s original timeshare version released in 1975. Much of the original 1971 game, which has been lost, carried over to this version. Credit: Motherboard

The development process was elaborated upon in an oral history published by Motherboard in 2017, with particular attention paid to the game’s famous hunting mechanic, which required students to type “BANG” in order to fire. Heinemann programmed hunting to include specific restrictions, including a time limit. If the player spelled the word wrong or took too long to type, they received nothing; if they typed fast, they received more meat and a more positive comment on their performance. The timed mechanic was also used when bandits or wild animals attacked.

An example of the original game’s hunting mechanic, which required the player to type quickly and accurately. The player’s responses are highlighted in yellow. Credit: Medium

Heinemann and Dillenberger tested Oregon Trail with students at the school at which they taught, where it was an immediate success with students. Rawitsch then took the game to his own students.

The Oregon Trail was an immediate success with the school’s students, but its initial existence was short-lived. Because its creators’ student-teacher placements were drawing to a close, they had to delete the program’s files but printed out its source code just in case. (It is worth noting that Rawitsch, Heinemann, and Dillenberger were only recognized as the creators of Oregon Trail in the 1990s.)

The Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a state-funded organization developing educational software, hired Rawitsch three years later and asked him to resurrect Oregon Trail. Rawitsch spent Thanksgiving 1974 entering eight hundred lines of code into a teletype device and the program was now available on MECC’s own system available to schools throughout Minnesota. Released by MECC in 1975, Oregon Trail became the most popular software in the MECC system for the next five years.

Rawitsch published the game’s source code in Creative Computing magazine in 1978, coinciding with MECC’s purchase of Apple II microcomputers for its schools that same year. John Cook adapted the game for the Apple II in 1980; his version retained most of Oregon Trail’s text-based gameplay, adding both a graphical representation of hunting and a map.

The new map screen. Credit: Medium

Hunting now involved more than merely typing the word “BANG” to fire a gun – it was a fully visualized first-person encounter between the player and a deer.

The new, entirely graphics-based hunting screen. Credit: Medium

MECC became a for-profit company in 1983 and sought to remake Oregon Trail not long after. High-quality educational software for the Apple II had become readily available in the years since the original title’s release, and MECC needed a new, less technologically outdated version of the game. This new version of Oregon Trail would be released in 1985 for a variety of platforms.

Box art for the Apple II version of the 1985 Oregon Trail. The raccoon is my favourite part. Credit: MobyGames

In October 1984, MECC assigned programmer R. Phillip Bouchard as team leader and lead developer on a complete re-working of Oregon Trail. Bouchard had joined MECC in 1981 as their only employee with experience creating computer-based simulations (by his own account, at least). Bouchard’s team included programmer John Krenz, graphic designer Charolyn Kapplinger, researcher Shirley Keran, and Bob Granvin, who provided additional programming.

The core development team shortly after the release of the Apple II version in 1985. L-R: Charolyn Kapplinger, John Krenz, Shirley Keran, and Philip Bouchard. Credit: Medium

Kapplinger would prove a particularly influential member of the game’s development team; her designs would include other humans, for the first time in the series’ history.

Kapplinger’s landmark graphics included other human characters, a first for the series. Credit: Medium

The team kept seven core concepts from the 1971 Oregon Trail, including purchasing supplies before beginning the journey; hunting for food; supply management; purchasing items at forts; weather conditions affecting the rate of travel; the frequent occurrence of misfortunes; and the game ending either when the player reached Oregon or died.

A tombstone from the 1985 Oregon Trail. Players could choose whether to give deceased party members a proper funeral. Credit: Medium

Bouchard and his team added seven new features to their re-imagined version. Most importantly, Bouchard sought to tie the the game’s narrative to the geography of the Oregon Trail itself; gameplay now consisted of distinct segments, each of which concluded at a particular landmark. Each landmark was included in a different geographic area and was associated with a particular activity, including river crossings or buying from a fort. The team also implemented a travel screen with a now-iconic animation of “a tiny ox pulling a little wagon across a black screen ”.

The 1985 version’s travel screen. Perhaps surprisingly, the now-iconic image of an ox and wagon was not part of the travel screen as it was initially conceived. Credit: Medium

Other changes included the ability to pause the game at any point and the replacement of the original title’s two-week cycle with an independent day-to-day cycle. As well, hunting now occurred from a third-person perspective and took place in various environments (each with their own distinct characteristics). Perhaps most famously, Bouchard implemented a mechanic where the player could only take 100 pounds of meat back to their wagon, regardless of how many animals they had killed.

An example of the 1985 hunting screen. The hunting screens differed according to the geography of the area the player was in at the time. Credit: Medium

Beyond making the re-imagined game more reminiscent of travelling the Oregon Trail in real life, Bouchard incorporated humans into the new version. In particular, the player now gave the four other people travelling with them names and was tasked with keeping their party alive and disease-free.

At the beginning of the game, the player names the other party members that will travel with them. This, according to Bouchard, contributed to the “human feel” of the game. Credit: Medium

In the 1971 original game, the disease that befell the player was never named, whereas five named diseases were included in the 1985 game – including the infamous, meme-spawning dysentery.

The infamous “you have died of dysentery” meme. Credit: Dave Ward at Flickr via BuzzFeed

The re-designed Oregon Trail was profoundly different from the game created by Rawitsch, Heinemann, and Dillenberger in 1971, and not merely in its added concepts and improved presentation. Bouchard was tasked with designing a version of the game intended not only for classroom education but for retail sale and household consumption as well. This change in approach marked the beginnings of Oregon Trail’s status as a landmark title in educational entertainment. As Bouchard noted in a 2017 Medium article:

Because I was designing a home market product, I knew that I had to create a game that was highly entertaining, in addition to being clearly educational. I felt that it was possible to do both, without seriously compromising either — but I had to strike a careful balance in the details. In particular, I felt that both the educational value and the entertainment value should arise from immersing the player in a historically accurate experience.

Walt Disney’s argument back in 1954 for an implicit overlap between education and entertainment in films was now manifest in video game form. In developing a game that was entertaining as well as educational, Bouchard echoed aspects of more commercial titles on the market at the time. In particular, he emphasized that reaching Oregon required multiple attempts and a variety of approaches, increasing the game’s replay value. Furthermore, he incorporated a high-score table unveiled once the player first reached Oregon – a table already full of scores “attained” by historical figures:


The high score table includes the names of historical figures who had previously travelled to Oregon. The highest score belongs to fur trapper Stephen Meek, who moved to Oregon in 1835. Source: Medium

Players are also given little information on how to successfully reach Oregon, and the tension between guiding players and trusting them to figure things out on their own lies at the heart of the edutainment genre. As we’ll see in future entries, there are many different approaches to the notion of edutainment gaming itself.

Oregon Trail remains one of the most popular and instantly recognizable titles in educational entertainment; it remains the only game of its kind to be included in the World Video Game Hall of Fame. It’s an appropriate achievement: from the work of three Minnesota schoolteachers in 1971, an entire, perhaps generation-defining, genre was born. Many sequels and remakes of Oregon Trail have been released since 1971 and 1985, but its first two versions remain vital aspects of the field of edutainment.

Join us next time for a look at the beloved 1985 globe-trotting game Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, whose status as an iconic edutainment title came entirely as a surprise to its creators.