Oregon Trail Progress

Our work on The Oregon Trail, the educational game, progresses thanks to Internet Archive’s Software Library: MS-DOS Showcase and MS-DOS Games. There’s a lot of work to do as we study the game, how it developed through its versions, and how it developed the people who played it. Of course, it is necessary to make sure the program still works, so testing is necessary. (Success! Now, back to business.)

Games have been part of education because children like games. Adults do too, but they’re more likely to find a different motivation to learn, and may be so careful about appearances that they’d play.

Oregon Trail, as we’ve written about before, is one of the best examples of how computer games teach different things depending on how the game is played. While each player will always learn differently, the distinction goes deeper because computers and computing are always different. The game teaches about the lives of the pioneers on the trail, but it also teaches critical thinking, strategy, and the influence of chance.

Oregon Trail started with a version that required the player to type in the code. Regardless of the history lessons, the player had to learn something about programming. The power of a typo in code could be readily apparent, and make the game easier, harder, or simply bizarre. Shift a decimal point and the buffaloes can grow enough to feed the entire wagon trail, or so shrink to the size of squirrels, or defy logic.

As storable memory became available, the code may only have to be typed in once, which teaches some programming, and delivers the awareness of the underlying code, but eventually subsequent games and players can ignore the computer and computing and concentrate on the game and its lessons. The user’s manual for the apple II version (thanks to Internet Archive – and note yet another spelling of Apple II) even included the basis of math model so players would maintain some understanding of the game’s math, systems, simulation requirements, and data sources. Assumptions are explicit.

When software was delivered on disks, assumptions became implicit. The game could be played without learning about the programming limitations and requirements. Math models are only witnessed by their products, not because the equations are displayed.

As graphics improved, the nature of the play turned from keyboard commands in the 1990 version to point, click, and shoot in the 1992 version. The visuals emphasized entertainment rather than intellectual complexity.

Screenshot 2015-01-18 at 15.07.27 Screenshot 2015-01-18 at 15.07.51

Thanks to Internet Archive we can pull together a few of these versions for comparisons.

The game continues. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt continues to sell the game in yet new incarnations. The learning continues.

Oregon Trail is one of the easiest games to use as an example because it has spanned the various computer eras.

Other examples are more complex. Flight simulators have existed almost since the beginning of flight. The professional versions advanced outside public access. The home versions were toys to start, but now have advanced into valuable tools.

Oregon Trail, simulators, and others are opportunities for us to study how computers and computing affect learning and education. EdTech is a popular and profitable topic yet considering the impact of computers and computing on our society, very little has been done to study which level of technology is best for specific aspects of learning.

Our goal is to create an online space where such questions can be asked and answered. The size of the task is typified by the size of the game and simulation industries. There’s a lot of work to do, but first, of course, we have to make sure the games are playable.

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