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Generation Oregon Trail January 29, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Online Tools, Students.

gen OT   With some surprise I noticed an odd theme emerging from the blog entries of my students this week. Upon reflecting on their earliest educational technology experiences, many of them mentioned Oregon Trail as one of their first exposures to decent software in schools.

This excellent simulation from MECC pitted students as characters in living in the Eastern United States as they prepared for then made the journey across the continent to Oregon. If you pack incorrectly you might starve, break an axle and become stranded, or freeze to death. Students seemed to like the characters and the story. I was surprised at the fondness of the memories this software appeared to have for my students.

If teachers ran it properly, students were to have read a short story called Dear Rachel about a pioneer girl traveling on a trail to California. Foods in the game were authentic so it would not have been unusual for a teacher to bring in beef jerky, nuts, and dried fruit. Students were also encouraged to invent games to play along the way, fill up a journal with insights, and engage with maps. The simulation was supposed to take the whole day or you could spread the 2040 mile journey over the six months it was supposed to have taken the characters.

Despite the general enthusiasm for the game and educational activities, a few critiques have pointed out culture bias inherent in the game. Bigelow (1997) in Language Arts argued that the game was “sexist, racist, culturally insensitive, and contemptuous of the earth, imparting bad values and wrong history.? Bigelow based his conclusion on the limited range of characters available, their actions and potential, and their roles. When most of the Native American characters take on role of enemy his point is well taken.

Despite that, there is a generation of students in my class who nod with understanding when I say, “Joseph got lost hunting for Bison and Sally’s caught the Scarlet Fever so it’s not looking good.?



1. Taylor D. Eavenson - January 30, 2006

The observation that most students first exposure to technology was Oregon Trail brings back memories. I remember back to grade school when the teacher allowed us time to play on the computer, students (especially myself) always went for Oregon Trail. I agree with the fact that the game taught me about certain perils that came with traveling the 2000+ miles west, but I strongly disagree with the concept that it was racist, sexist, or misleading. As a young child I dont remember thinking anything about how the Indians were percieved or how the woman in the game were reacting/treated. The game (in my opinion) acts as a nice introduction to the use of computer technology with a fun history based game.

2. mcvey - January 30, 2006

Taylor, I agree with you about it not being sexist or racist. Some researchers would disagree and suggest that it played on the stereotypes so subtly that you didn’t notice. Sounds like a no-win sort of argument to me. :-) Thanks for writing.

3. Zs - January 30, 2006

My thought came not from my childhood memories and interactions with technology (I did not have the fortune to have that; never learned to type on keyboard in school), but from the fact that someone like me who encountered a real computer when in college, and not having really free access to computer till in the 1990! is so fascinated by technology and so avid learner.
Michael, could you write a thought on a couple of other categories of people? The ones who get in touch with technology from early age, but they are not using it later in life; the ones who meet it early and use it all their life; and the ones (like me) who met technology late but keep using it and be amazed by it. I am so sure there are other ones like me. And they are many more who surpass me in knowledge even if we start from the same point.
I am amazed by my cousin who met technology even later in life but already he knows much much more than I do.
Think about us :-)

4. Tracy Arnold - February 1, 2006

I have been exposed to computer technology since I can remember. My dad is a software engineer and I have had at least one computer if not more since I could walk. I remember Oregon Trail being one of the more fun games we played, along with Wheel of Fortune and Mavis Beacon teaches typing. That is how i learned to be independent on the computer and learn my way around. Although reading a story or having journal writing may be appropriate for school, the game proves to be memorable whereas a book might not.

5. Melissa Wilson - February 3, 2006

I vividly remember playing Oregon Trail in late elementary school. I would rush through whatever assignment the teacher gave me to be able to play the game. I loved playing Oregon Trail because no matter how many times I played, different things happened. It was not like Mario because you did not have the same trials every time. The added bonus was that it was educational. I learned history, but more importantly, Oregon Trail taught me life skills. To win the game, I had to plan ahead and anticipate any obstacles that might come along. Teaching children about planning ahead at a young age can help them with planning in the future. It helped me.

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