The Oregon Trail Memes

By R. Philip Bouchard

The term “meme” originated with the 1976 book The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. It was used in connection with concepts of cultural evolution. Our culture – or any other culture – tends to be in a constant state of change, which may be fast or may be slow. As new ideas, concepts, or ways of doing things enter the culture, they are passed from person to person – but not necessarily in their exact original form. In other words, these bits of culture undergo evolution over time. Dawkins needed a term for these small bits of culture, and that is why he coined the word “meme”.

The concept of a meme eventually became a meme itself. The term became quite popular – and not surprisingly, the meaning of the term soon evolved. These days the most common use of the term is to refer to a humorous image, video, or piece of text that spreads rapidly throughout the internet – often resulting in many variations created by many different people. By either definition of “meme”, the 1985 version of The Oregon Trail has generated many memes that continue to ricochet through popular culture – spread primarily by the internet, but also in other forms of popular media. There are at least eight principal memes from The Oregon Trail that you can find on the internet and elsewhere:

  1. The travel screen
  2. The animated ox and wagon
  3. Died of dysentery
  4. Hunting
  5. Can only carry 100 pounds back to the wagon
  6. River crossings
  7. A broken axle
  8. Tombstones

Some of the references on the internet are straightforward – nostalgic rather than humorous. But it is the humorous references, the jokes and the parodies, that show the depth to which The Oregon Trail has become a part of the culture – because you have to know the game in order to understand the humor. Below are some humorous references found on the internet, for each of the eight memes listed above:

1.   The travel screen

Our first example is a mashup of The Oregon Trail and the popular TV show Breaking Bad:

A dead-on parody of The Oregon Trail called Thule Trail, which can be played online:

2.   The animated ox and wagon

A T-shirt (available for purchase!) that combines two famous memes from The Oregon Trail:

A mashup of Dr. Who and The Oregon Trail, also available as a T-shirt:

3.   Died of dysentery

The lesson that first-time players of The Oregon Trail always learn:

An elegant and poignant reminiscence about playing The Oregon Trail as a child:

Source: unknown

4.   Hunting

In this parody game called The Organ Trail, the hunting activity includes zombies:

A pie chart of essential data about playing The Oregon Trail:

5.   Can only carry 100 pounds back to the wagon

A cartoon about the frustrations and lessons of playing The Oregon Trail:

The Oregon Trail memorabilia even extends to bumper stickers:

6.   River crossings

This parody was posted at a crosswalk on a Los Angeles street:

A mashup of the Bayeux tapestry (depicting the Norman Invasion) and The Oregon Trail:

7.   A broken axle

The website Digg presented a clever message when the site went down:

How would you caption a photo of a cat in a miniature covered wagon?

8.   Tombstones

Generate your own tombstone, like the ones in The Oregon Trail:

Source: unknown, but there are several such tombstone generators on the internet

A tombstone in a parody game called Orion Trail:

9.   Additional Miscellaneous Examples

Where to Go Next?