Dec 3, 2021 - News

How 3 Minnesotans created The Oregon Trail 50 years ago

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The Oregon Trail has turned 50 years old, and if you're scratching your head β€” a computer game in 1971? β€” you're not alone.

The intrigue: Yes, it was children of the 1990s who learned to ford rivers, replace broken wagon wheels and who tried to stave off dysentery.

  • But it was actually a bunch of baby boomers in Minneapolis who first played the game as middle schoolers in the early 1970s.

Driving the wagon: The game was created by a trio of Carleton College (Northfield) students five years before the first personal computers.

  • It was originally played on a teletype at Jordan Junior High in North Minneapolis, reports the The 74, which profiled the creators for the 50th anniversary.

Why it matters: The Oregon Trail eventually became a computer game and was used widely in classrooms across the country in the 1990s. It's one of just 32 games in The Strong's World Video Game Hall of Fame.

  • One estimate says 65 million copies were sold and, eventual owner Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), was making as much as $10 million a year from the game in the '90s.

Yes, but: Because the creators β€” Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger β€” gave the game to MECC in 1974 without any expectation of being repaid, the original creators never saw a dime, reports The 74.

Our take: Axios Twin Cities' Nick Halter and Torey Van Oot grew up playing The Oregon Trail and agree it was not only mesmerizing, as The 74 describes it, but it also taught youngsters about managing resources.

  • Thanks to The Internet Archive, you can play an early edition on your computer. We decided to take a quick break from newsletter writing in the name of nostalgia.

Travel the trail:

  • Nick made it to the Willamette Valley, but his cavalier attitude about river crossings caused the drowning death of Anna and a dozen oxen. Final score: 892.
  • Torey remembered to hunt early and often and to grease the palms of river guides, so as to avoid catastrophe on the crossings. She lost Beth along the way. Final score: 3,318.
  • Audrey Kennedy played for the first time and sadly didn't make it as all five members of her wagon perished, the last of which was herself, near The Dalles.
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