The words flashed across the screen, and I knew I had failed in my promise to Anne. I promised that despite her coming down with dysentery, I would not let her die. I had failed her, and I knew one thing was for certain: She would definitely be less inclined to swap PB&J for tuna at lunch time.

While there have been a variety of educational videogames – Reading Rabbit, Math Blaster, Number Muncher, Super Solvers Midnight Rescue, just to name a few – none rekindle as many fond memories as Oregon Trail, which could be called the quintessential edutainment title of the late ’80s and early ’90s. The OT (as kids on Facebook call it when they reminisce about the game in various discussion groups) challenged young players across a variety of skill sets; it required more than the three R’s to make it all the way from Independence, Missouri to the Oregon Territory.

The game forced students to make various decisions that would ultimately affect their entire journey. When planning the thousand-mile journey, there were a variety of factors to consider. First off, what type of job would you take? Sure, you could be a teacher, but just like nowadays, teachers in the 1840s got paid squat. If you were a doctor, you’d be rolling out with $1,200 and able to treat members of your party who got sick or injured along the way. Not wanting to be broke, and not wanting to be remembered as the guy who selected easy mode, I settled for one of the professions in the middle – the blacksmith: $800 purse and some mechanical know-how, in case the wagon broke.

Then came the purchasing of goods. The general store had all the necessities any party would need to make the trip to Oregon. Based on the profession a player selected, he was allotted a certain amount of money to budget for the supplies he needed. Oxen, clothing, bullets, food and spare wheels, tongues and axels – all this could be yours, if you had the necessary funds to procure it. Frugality was the foe here, as many players, myself included, underestimated just exactly what they would need for the trip. Who knew wagon wheels would break so frequently? How was I supposed to know that two spares wouldn’t be enough? Cars only came with one spare, and that seemed to work for them just fine. Ah, the logic of a child.

The journey began, and I couldn’t wait to see if my motley crew could make it to Oregon intact. While I was worried about two other friends I simulated, Ryan and Jessica, I really didn’t care so much if they made it; just that Dan the blacksmith and Anne made it safe and sound to their destination. But that was going to be a tad more difficult than I originally thought.

The first hundred or so miles came and went without much fanfare, but when I came across my first river, I made a terrible, terrible decision. While I thought it would be smart to pay the $5 to use the ferry to cross the river, I succumbed to peer pressure and decided to ford it. It was catastrophic: Oxen died, we lost clothing and the whole party lost some of its vigor. With many more rivers to cross, we learned a valuable lesson early on: Never, ever try and ford the God damned river.

When our group was first struck with illness (Ryan met the business end of a snake), we feared the worst. We rested in hopes that he would recover, and luckily enough, he did. So, when Anne fell ill, we figured she would be right as rain in a few days, as long as we rested. We knew that dysentery, whatever it was, would be a dys-tant memory in short order. Or, so we thought. Despite days of rest, there was no marked change in her health. And in a few more days, she passed away.

The rest of the journey was somber, but, despite a rather harsh winter on the tail end of our journey, we made it. Fates be damned, we were in Oregon now. And now, class, what did we really learn from this journey, this expedition from one side of America to another?

Oregon Trail taught kids more than just how to add, spell or read. It taught kids that sometimes a variety of options present themselves, and it’s up to the leader to choose which option to take. It challenged children to think twice about shooting 15 animals, because while it might be fun, shooting more than you need only means the food you take back will spoil. And, maybe, it taught us a little about life and death. But hey, even if Oregon Trail didn’t actually teach kids anything about problem solving in the real world, at least they walked away with one lesson learned: Never, ever ford the river.

Dan Dormer is a videogame freelancer who keeps a poorly updated blog
at his personal
site
. He’s also afraid of seeing scary movies. True story.

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