“Mike Tyson has died of dysentery.” – The Lessons of The Oregon Trail

Not really. Iron Mike, if you’re reading this, I didn’t mean anything by it.
Oregon Trail splash screen

Like many children of the 1980s, I loved The Oregon Trail, that clunky but lovable educational computer game we played in elementary school. The game allows you to name your four traveling companions, and I frequently bestowed upon them the names of popular sports figures of the time. Hence, Mike Tyson and his frequent bouts with dysentery, cholera, typhoid, measles, and broken limbs. Occasionally I’d drown him while attempting to ford a river. This was, perhaps, my revenge for being certifiably awful at Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!

The point of this post, however, is not to reminisce about my childhood (besides, Michael Bay has already destroyed it). I recently revisited The Oregon Trail (and you can too!) and found that my perspective as a training professional has changed the way I view the game. I came to a startling conclusion about my experience with the game as a child: I didn’t learn anything from The Oregon Trail.

Given my fond memories of the game, this realization was somewhat shocking to me. But it’s not difficult to see why the experience was so ineffective for me, and those reasons had as much to do with the way in which the game was presented (or wasn’t) as with the game itself.

The Capital “P” Point
The Oregon Trail is a resource management game. The goal is to reach the Willamette Valley from a starting point in Independence, Missouri. Success in this quest depends on careful management of resources such as food, supplies, transportation, health, and money to optimize rate of travel. The point is to understand how difficult this journey was for pioneering Americans under severe resource constraints, and also to absorb some contextual information about life in that era through conversations with fellow travelers. I can plainly see this now.

Larry Bird doesn't want you to know he caught diphtheria on The Oregon TrailVirtually none of this was clear to me as a child. All I understood was “This is hard.” I didn’t think critically about why it was hard. And I certainly wasn’t going to enter a bunch of random conversations with travelers when I could be hunting bears or giving Larry Bird diphtheria and writing funny things on his tombstone (C’mon, Larry, you had it coming). What I needed was a teacher who talked with the class about what we were learning, pointing out important lessons and comparing the experiences of different classmates.

What I was missing was a debrief. At Enspire, we run into this situation frequently. Our off-the-shelf products like Executive Challenge, Business Challenge, and Mastering Management are almost always deployed with a facilitator to guide a discussion around the learning objectives. There’s enough raw material in The Oregon Trail to spark discussion around plenty of elementary school appropriate topics, from the changing of seasons to regional flora and fauna differences to basic necessities for life to historical events contemporaneous with the game’s narrative. I just needed someone to help me make the connections rather than plop me in front of an Apple IIe for busy work.

I might have been able to draw some of these lessons out on my own, particularly those ingrained in the mechanics of the game, if I had the chance to replay the game and compare the relative success of different strategies. That was never the case. My opportunities to play The Oregon Trail were few and far between, mostly to cover unexpected holes in a lesson plan, I suspect.

Having the opportunity to replay the game at my leisure, I can see that there are some nuanced lessons here stemming from:

  • Initial game conditions – choosing to be a banker, a carpenter, or a farmer leads to vastly different monetary resources to start the game. Choosing the appropriate month to begin the journey leads to different challenges in keeping travelers and oxen healthy versus the ease of traversing geographical obstacles.
  • Consumptions rates – by selecting the rate of travel and the quality of food rations, you must balance competing in-game resources to optimize longevity.
  • Risk taking – to ford the river or caulk the wagon: that is the question. Whether tis nobler in the mind to wait for conditions to change and water depth to decrease or to pay for safe passage on a ferry? Ay, there’s the rub; for in the risky crossing of a raging river, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar may shuffle off this mortal coil.
  • Contingencies – the structure of resources in the game creates a (debatable) hierarchy of value. Can’t live without food, but would you be better off just buying ammo and hunting for your meals? Then again, what if someone gets sick and you need to rest; won’t the food reserves come in handy then? Spare parts for the wagon are costly, but you’re going nowhere fast if an axle breaks. I could have used some budgeting lessons like this as a kid.

In the absence of skilled facilitation, these nuances only become apparent with the ability to replay and compare strategies. This is the basis for learning in most video games, even if all you’re learning is how to play the game. It also supports the notion that different experiences don’t necessarily mean unequal experiences; the game experience won’t be the same for everyone on each play through, but the sum of multiple plays can still be a uniformly rich experience.

And yet, replayability is largely a forgotten concept in our field. When we build a course, it’s frequently with the understanding that our audience is only engaging with the course under duress, and even those who come to it freely will likely only do so once. Add in the constraint that much of the information is mandatory for compliance or other business reasons, and we end up with largely linear courses in order to ensure that all learners have the same experience.

Integrated content
With only one chance to play through The Oregon Trail every few months, with little reinforced or"Talk to people" is last
retained in the meantime, I never “wasted” my time talking to the travelers I passed on my journey. Little did I know that I was missing a fairly substantial avenue for learning embedded in the game. “Talk to people” was usually buried at the end of any list of options available to you and, let’s be honest, sounds a lot less exciting to kids than hunting, trading, or continuing along the trail, thus ensuring no elementary school kid is going to pick that option. Even playing the game again now, I still don’t want to pick that option despite discovering that fellow travelers will frequently give you valuable information about the terrain ahead or, at least, some colorful anecdotes about survival in that era.

I consider this to be a failing of the game rather than of the circumstances under which I played it in my youth. Talking to people and many other player abilities are afterthoughts in large part because their value is never demonstrated. Other information, like news of Joe Montana’s tragic case of small pox, interrupts the action of the game, giving the impression that all crucial info will be supplied to the player as needed. And, in a convergence of faulty game design and the replayability factor, there’s a risk in experimenting with player actions that might sabotage the one chance an impressionable young gamer might get to play The Oregon Trail this semester.

Modern games handle this sort of thing better, often integrating a tutorial on the game’s features into the narrative. One day outside of town, a traveler informs you that the road ahead is impassable and advises you to take another route. “That’s great information,” you might say. “No problem,” the traveler responds, “and if you’re looking for more guidance in the future, check out the ‘Talk to people’ option buried at the bottom of your action list.” Similarly, a thief might steal some food supplies to prompt a discussion of adjusting the team’s rations or an imposed intermediate deadline leads to a discussion of adjusting the travel pace.

Additionally, more of the colorful anecdotes that provide authentic details about the time period could be forced interactions. My friends and I loved typing in ridiculous messages for our deceased companions’ tombstones; we would sit through any such forced interactions if we got the opportunity to hone our wit typing in responses to virtual pioneers.

Simple mechanics enriched through context
I'm adequate!Here’s what works about The Oregon Trail: the gameplay is pretty simple, the number of choices to make few, and the modes of interaction limited, but the context for player actions makes it interesting and sustainable. With my more expansive understanding of gaming and the luxury of playing multiple times, I was able to tailor my strategies to beat the game with different initial constraints (to be clear, this is pure description, not braggadocio, but you can feel free to leave your congratulations in the comments). The only reason I cared to spend my time to do so was because it was genuinely compelling to see the effects of those initial conditions while the random narrative elements, such as Mike Tyson’s dysentery, keep the extended gameplay fresh. These aren’t just formulas in a spreadsheet; I really want to get Iron Mike across that river. Sometimes.

We’re currently struggling with a similar question in our product development group: how complex do the game mechanics need to be in order to sustain player interest over a one-day experience? Three days? Six weeks? I think games like The Oregon Trail point to one possible answer: the game mechanics don’t have to be complex at all. As long as simple mechanics can be recombined in interesting ways with the aid of an unfolding narrative, players will stick with you… sometimes even for 25 years.