Playing The Oregon Trail in class is one of those rare elementary school experiences that cuts across generational lines. The educational game is probably the chief reason so many young adults in the United States know exactly what dysentery is despite never having encountered it.
As we led a virtual family across the United States, many of us shot too many buffalo and then starved towards the end of the trip, or lost family members while trying to ford the wagon.
Developed originally by a college senior named Don Rawitsch in Minnesota in 1971 to teach American students about the settlement of the American West, it went on to sell 65 million copies by 2011.
The Oregon Trail as a teaching tool
In terms of engaging children, Oregon Trail was wildly successful. As a way of critically engaging with U.S. history though, the game had a number of serious limitations. For one, the fact that early-game overhunting led to late-game food shortages was never impressed on my brain in childhood.
While I gleefully participated in the destruction of the buffalo, which certainly reflects history, this was not a useful teaching moment. There are some other points of inaccuracy as well: cholera was the big killer on the Oregon Trail, not dysentery. Expeditions often included dozens of families, not just lone wagons moving across the plains.
More serious are some of the unquestioned assumptions about U.S. history in the game. Rawitsch included encounters with Native Americans in the game, and to his credit made a conscious decision to avoid hostile encounters with them.
Left unspoken, however, is the fact that these settlers were moving across a country that was rapidly dispossessing Native Americans of their land. Native Americans appear throughout the game and passively offer advice or offer to trade, but there’s no commentary about the fact that they are losing their lands (including those in Oregon and Washington).
Paths not taken
Consider other facets, too. Oregon was settled almost exclusively by Euroamericans who wanted to build a state for themselves. There was a small French trapper community who had intermingled with Native Americans in Oregon who remain largely forgotten today; early American settlers were unlikely to commemorate people who frequently intermarried with Native Americans.
Within a decade of the time period in-game, wars were launched against indigenous communities in Oregon. When Oregon became a state in 1859, the constitution explicitly prohibited people of colour from settling there.
In short, there’s a great deal of history that Oregon Trail doesn’t manage to shine a light on: who got to settle there, who got pushed out, and who isn’t talked about.
Rethinking the game design
One approach to fixing this has been simply remaking Oregon Trail to depict more indigenous figures, and in a less passive light. Oregon Trail has been updated and remade on the Apple Store, and this time, indigenous characters are actually playable.
The designers worked with historians and consultants to ensure that the representation didn’t lapse into old stereotypes. Contrary to depictions in older movies, Native American traders and trappers used firearms regularly, so there are no bow-hunting anachronisms in-game.
When Rivers Were Trails
Another game that looks at this issue is When Rivers Were Trails. Here, the perspective is exclusively an indigenous one. Set in the 1890s, players assume the role of an Anishinaabeg tribe member displaced from their land who heads to California.
The game’s narrative is rooted in the multiple crises facing Native Americans by the end of the nineteenth century. The precipitating event forcing the protagonist to start traveling is the implementation of the Dawes Act.
This forced tribes on reservations to break up their land into allotments, which were family-sized parcels of land. Players then venture across a North America that has been dramatically changed, mostly for the worse, by Euroamerican settlement.
Of course, as with most good ideas, there are a few different ways to explore some of these themes that either have not yet been tapped or have been done less successfully. Few remember it, but MECC, the same company that released Oregon Trail, also created a game about the Underground Railroad.
It was called Freedom! The project had grown out from Underground Railroad re-enactments run by a Minnesota activist named Kamau Kambui. While well-intentioned, the game was frequently given to students to play without any context provided by lessons or anything else.
The dialogue among escaped slaves was also frequently offensive, and the game encountered a significant backlash. This isn’t to say that any game tackling this subject is doomed to failure. But it does need to be supported correctly.
Consider, too, exploration of North America before Euroamerican settlement was fully felt. There’s a strange sentiment that persists among some people that it took Europeans to fully explore North America, but the truth is that there are stories of Native American explorers.
Moncacht-apé, a member of the Natchez tribe in Mississippi, told a French explorer in the 1720s that he had travelled across North America and to the Pacific Ocean.
Moncacht-apé’s story, whether true, exaggerated or an out-and-out yarn (and there’s a good deal of reason to think it was true), would nevertheless make for a great game. It could be a great vehicle to look at North America in a very different light.
Finally, what about the African American experience outside of slavery? In the 1870s, many African Americans began leaving the South after Reconstruction had ended and as white governments began violently reimposing control over African Americans. A large migration of people headed to Kansas in what became known as the Exoduster movement.
A game on this subject need not and should not directly mimic the Oregon Trail, but it could ask questions about what settlement and migration means to people trying to escape oppression. All of these are possible directions to think about as developers grapple with how to handle this critical but problematic game franchise.