Oregon Trail – More Than A Game

Get ready to hit the Oregon Trail. Buy your oxen, fill your wagon, climb aboard. That’s the way the computer game, Oregon Trail, is played. In its original 1972 incarnation the players had to learn how to log into their timeshare computer and load the program before they could play. Learning about the real Oregon Trail was likely to be a secondary activity. Games for education are back in style, as if they ever left, but there’s a lot about how and what they teach that we have yet to learn.

Even after 40 years of using computer games and simulations to teach, educators still have little quantitative proof that games are an effective method for attaining academic goals or what factors can improve a game’s impact. Oregon Trail is unique because the same theme, informational content and player actions have been used in new versions of the game every few years for decades. We plan to use these successive versions to test the educational effectiveness of the various versions from player-typed text listings to plug-and-play, heads-up, high-resolution, video games.

To understand how computer or video games promote academic learning, the factors that influence retention of the target information must be isolated and most of them held constant while a single factor is varied separately.

One such factor is the format used to present the educational content (e.g. text, type-writer graphics, crude cartoons, complex cartoons and realistic video). Oregon Trail is old enough to have versions throughout the range allowing us to explore the impact of these different forms of presentation on the learning outcomes of comparable players. The variables are complex — more than ‘computer vs. no-computer’ or ‘game vs. drill sheet’. Museum visitors will have the option of playing one or more versions of Oregon Trail,  online, with the same academic content. What varies is the presentation (stimulus).

Today anyone can play Oregon Trail by searching online or by firing up a Nintendo. The goal is to survive the journey. The hazards for the pioneers were real, but can feel abstract if just presented as text and paragraphs. As a game (which ironically is abstract or at least virtual), the players must make choices based on uncertainties, strategies, and contingencies. They learn about some of the challenges and can better appreciate what the pioneers went through.

Originally, anyone wanting to play Oregon Trail could learn the same things about the pioneer journey. In addition they might have to learn typing, programming, debugging, and other computer skills. The player was also more likely to be aware of the assumptions and equations that were the basis of the game. They typed it all in. A missed zero could radically change the outcome, and that would also become an accidental lesson in sensitivities and a decreased expectation that computers are infallible. Garbage in, garbage out was much more apparent.

The current and historical experiences sound like two dramatically different learning events, so it is easy to accept that one is better than the other. Assumptions aren’t as powerful as measurements; and there are very few measurements of such comparisons.

The Oregon Trail Virtual Museum Exhibit that we will host is one example of why we are building the History of Computing in Learning and Education Virtual Museum.

Creating the exhibit will allow the curious to check their scores across versions; and will also provide metadata in terms of pre- and post-test responses, game-play keystrokes and timing, and self-reports of players. The exhibit will gather enough anonymous biographical data to create comparable groups for data analysis.

Most educational explorations of classroom methods use a treatment and control design administered to two comparable groups of students. The control group receives what is thought to be the same academic content delivered via lecture, paper-and-pencil drill or some other more conventional teaching strategy. Both groups are tested for various skills and content knowledge before and after the intervention.

Analysis of the data will answer: a) does format correlate with retention of target content; b) does format effect time on task; c) do different grade levels of learners retain the same target content when various formats; d) does retention of target content correlate with previous subject matter knowledge; e) do players who already know the subject matter play longer than those for whom it is new information?

The Oregon Trail Virtual Museum Exhibit addresses the persistent question of whether educationally significant results can be gained from the use of computer games and what design factors impact game effectiveness. It may also be useful for game designers. And, of course, it will work best if it is also fun. Wagons ho!

PS Want to watch our progress? Check out the Oregon Trail page on our wiki. We’ve only just begun.

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