Type “BANG” — An early trip on the Oregon Trail

From what I’ve heard, a video game called “The Oregon Trail” has been an enduring staple in education for the several decades. I was privileged to be among the first students who ever played the game — in its pre-video form — but I have not seen the more modern versions.

I was a fifth grade student, so that makes the year approximately 1974. I was part of a small group of high-achieving math students who were able to work on independent projects. One of the perks of being a brainiac was using the “computer” in the back room of the library — normally off limits to students.

I say “computer” because it was actually just a typewriter (we also called it a “teletype”) connected by modem (phone receiver with cord) to a mainframe computer in St. Paul.

We were able to play two games on the device, using the keyboard to communicate with the computer. The first was a game that involved guessing a three- or four-digit number. I don’t remember the name of the game or the specifics, but there were clues the computer would send that meant you had one or two digits correct, and which ones there were.

The second game we played was The Oregon Trail. This version of the game had no graphics, of course. That was several years away. It involved simply sending and receiving text messages through the teletype. The computer would explain the rules of the game, then ask how we wanted to spend our money to prepare for the trip: how much food, how many guns, how much ammunition, how many wagons, etc.

Once we had our supplies, we would set off, with the computer narrating the journey.

I don’t remember any details except one: Every now and again, out of the blue, the narrative would be interrupted by the words: “Indian attack! Type ‘BANG.'”

The faster we typed, the fewer the casualties.

I looked it up on Wikipedia, and it turns out the game was invented in 1971 by some Minnesotans, including a student teacher from Carleton. The Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium — a state organization — released the version I played in 1974, so I guess I was among the first to travel on the virtual Oregon Trail. They released an Apple II version in 1978, and by 1995, it was a $10 million per year product.

It turns out the game, the company that developed it, and the state of Minnesota, were instrumental in the integration of computers in education and also the success of Apple because Apple got the initial bid to provide computers to public schools, beating out Radio Shack.

For more interesting history on the game, and computers in education: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Oregon_Trail_(video_game)



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