The History of The Oregon Trail - The Educational Simulation

It's hard to believe that the story of The Oregon Trail educational simulation and its follow-up, Oregon Trail II, began more than twenty years ago. The original program was devised in 1971 by Don Rawitsch, Paul Dillenburger, and Bill Heineman, then student teachers in the Minneapolis Public Schools, using a teletype machine and a mainframe computer. It was entirely text-based with no sound and graphics, a simple point-to-point simulation in which up to sixteen students using

terminals physically removed from the mainframe could play simultaneously. To hunt, students had to type BANG quickly enough to "shoot" the game. They had to wait several seconds before learning whether their hunt was successful. (For those old enough to remember, do you recall those magic words?-- "Good eatin' tonight!")

Don Rawitsch joined MECC at its founding in 1973, bringing the Oregon simulation with him. Employing the more powerful mainframe technology of the MECC Timeshare System, several hundred students at many different school sites could soon take part in the simulation at the same time. But the program was still entirely text-based. And so it remained for the next several years. Nevertheless, the simulation continued to grow in popularity.

A major leap forward occurred in 1979, when the trail simulation was first redeveloped for a microcomputer: the Apple II. The program was titled Oregon, and it was one of several programs on a five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disk called Elementary Volume 6. For the first time, students all over the country could enjoy this historical simulation. There were now simple graphics and sound, which look extremely primitive by today's standards, but which were a major breakthrough for the time. Elementary Volume 6 quickly became MECC's best-selling product at the time, almost certainly because of the popularity of the Oregon simulation.

Keep in mind that this was at the dawn of the microcomputing age. Few schools had microcomputers in 1979. A very strong argument can be made that Oregon was the first "hit" program in the field of educational computing. In fact, as the popularity of the program spread, the use of microcomputers in schools spread as well. The two phenomena fed each other: as microcomputer use grew, the popularity of Oregon grew, which further encouraged more microcomputer purchases and use. The Apple II soon dominated the school computer market. And the whole field of educational software developed. The Oregon simulation was, in fact, the first of the "founding programs" in the field.

Later versions of the Oregon simulation, still part of Elementary Volume 6, were developed for the Atari, Commodore 64, and Radio Shack computers. But the next really big step took place in 1985, when Apple II Version 1.0 of The Oregon Trail first appeared as a stand-alone product for the home market, where computers were finally beginning to have a major impact. The greatly expanded program had been totally redesigned with an increased emphasis on historical accuracy and validity as well as educational value. Graphics and sound were also enhanced. The Oregon Trail immediately became MECC's new best-seller.

Other versions of The Oregon Trail followed: Apple IIGS and networkable Apple versions in 1987; an MS-DOS version in 1988; an enhanced VGA/MCGA version for MS-DOS in 1991. Also in 1991, MECC introduced Wagon Train 1848, a Macintosh-only cooperative-learning version of The Oregon Trail in which students playing together over a network could link up their computers to form wagon trains. In essence, each Mac became a separate wagon in the train, and students could communicate with each other and work together over the network. The Macintosh version of The Oregon Trail itself, with a whole new desktop interface and vastly improved graphics and sound, followed soon after. And in 1992 the program's desktop interface moved over to MS-DOS as well, with the added appeal of high-resolution VGA graphics, digitized sound, MIDI music, and other enhanced features.

The first CD-ROM versions of The Oregon Trail (MECC's first CD-ROM product ever) appeared in 1993. These were basically the previously-released Macintosh and MS-DOS editions of the program with improvements in sound, music, and graphics, but now, of course, delivered on the increasingly popular CD-ROM medium. These, too, quickly became best-sellers. But even as these first CD-ROMs were being shipped,

MECC was already making plans for an all-new version of the program--one that would from its very conception be totally redesigned with digital technology and CD storage capabilities in mind.It would be the culmination of nearly two full years of research and development. It would be the first of a whole new generation of MECC programs. And it would be so different, so much more advanced than any previous version of The Oregon Trail that it had to have a new name: Oregon Trail II. So while there had already been many different Oregon Trails, this was the first one that virtually demanded those Roman numerals, to signal that something really new had taken place. In short, the trail would never be the same again.

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