A Brief History of the Oregon Trail Game

By R. Philip Bouchard

The game called The Oregon Trail has a long history, which can be divided into three principal generations. The first generation began in 1971, with a 2-week project to create the original text-only version of the game. The second generation began in 1985, with the release of the classic Apple II version of the game, a project which entailed 10 months of design, programming, and testing. The third generation began in 1995, with the release of Oregon Trail II, followed by several other editions.

First Generation


Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger created the original version of the game – a text-only activity that was designed and programmed in just two weeks. This version was not publicly released, but was briefly piloted with students from the Minneapolis public school system, where Rawitsch, Heinemann, and Dillenberger were serving as student teachers.


Rawitsch, who had joined the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) in 1974, placed a modified version of the game onto MECC’s timeshare computer system, where students from across the state could access it. This version employed the same codebase and game logic as the 1971 version, with one key change – Don had updated the probability and details of the random events in the game, to better match the information that he found in diaries of actual travelers on the Oregon Trail. The game, simply called OREGON, soon became the most popular activity on the system.


Rawitsch published an article in Creative Computing magazine that contained the complete program code for OREGON, written in BASIC. This public sharing of the code made it easy for people to adapt the game to other timeshare systems or to the early personal computers just appearing on the market. Over the next couple of years, various people created nearly identical versions of the game, adapted for other computers. Although these versions were built on the same source code and used the same game structure, a few versions (including at least one Apple version) included a small amount of rudimentary graphics.


MECC began collecting the Apple II versions of its various timeshare programs, including OREGON and many others. MECC also began distributing Apple II computers to the schools in Minnesota, sold at a steep discount to the retail price. To ensure that schools would have some software to run on these computers, MECC made the Apple II programs available for download from the timeshare system.


MECC instituted a new method for distributing the Apple II versions of its software to Minnesota schools – by assembling collections of the programs on floppy disks. One of the first releases in 1980 was Elementary Volume 6, containing five social studies simulation games, one of which was OREGON. Elementary Volume 6 soon became MECC’s most popular product for the Apple II.


MECC began offering site licenses to school districts outside of Minnesota, allowing these schools to make unlimited copies of MECC’s Apple II products for a fixed annual fee. As a result, Elementary Volume 6 began to appear in schools all over North America.


MECC shut down its timeshare system, shifting its efforts entirely to the Apple II and other personal computers. That same year, MECC released a product called Expeditions for the Atari (400 and 800). Expeditions was an adaptation of Elementary Volume 6, except that it contained only 3 of the 5 activities – FURS, OREGON, and VOYAGEURS. Like the Apple II version, these versions of OREGON still employed the same simple game structure as the original timeshare version, using essentially the same program code and minimal graphics.


MECC released two more versions of Expeditions, one for the Commodore 64, and one for Radio Shack (TRS-80). Both versions included OREGON as one of the three activities on the disk.

Second Generation


MECC decided to create the first truly new version of the game – a much more elaborate activity that would be targeted to the home market rather than the school market. It would also be the first version to be sold as a stand-alone product under the name The Oregon Trail. MECC assembled an internal team to design and build this product. R. Philip Bouchard became the team leader and principal designer. John Krenz was named the lead programmer and Charolyn Kapplinger the lead graphic designer. The core team also included Shirley Keran, who served as a second researcher (in addition to Philip). For the first few months of the project, the core team also included Bob Granvin, who assisted with programming. All five of these core members played a key role in the early brainstorming for the new product.


After 10 months of design, programming, testing, and revision, The Oregon Trail was ready for release – reimagined and newly programmed from the ground up, thereby launching the second generation of the game. In addition to being highly graphical, the new design was the first to include many of the features that people now associate with the game – such as crossing rivers, stopping at landmarks, naming your party members, contracting diseases such as dysentery, carrying meat back to the wagon, choosing a profession, carrying spare parts, seeing daily weather updates, talking to people along the way, having members of your party die, erecting tombstones, and earning points based on your performance. This was also the version that introduced the iconic animation of an ox pulling a wagon across the landscape. Furthermore, this was the first version to be driven by a complex set of interlocking mathematical simulation models – including models for weather, health, and river conditions. In August MECC released the completed product to the home market, but did not make the product available as part of its site licensing program for schools.


After strong pushback from schools all across Minnesota and elsewhere, MECC relented and agreed to include The Oregon Trail in the site licensing program for schools. The software that was sold to schools was identical to the home version, but the packaging and labeling was completely different, and the school version included a teacher’s manual. The product soon achieved the greatest penetration in North American schools of all educational software products. The overwhelming popularity of the product in schools was an important factor in driving the sales of the home market version.


MECC released a DOS version of The Oregon Trail that was essentially identical to the Apple II version. However, the graphics had to be redrawn for the DOS version, using a different color palette and a slightly different resolution – and therefore screen shots of the DOS version are slightly different than the corresponding Apple II screen shots.


MECC adapted The Oregon Trail for computers with mouse-based interfaces. The resulting releases were for Mac (1991, black & white), DOS (1992, “Oregon Trail Deluxe”), and Windows (1993). These versions included certain augmented details that were not present in the earlier Apple II and DOS versions of the game, but otherwise employed the same game structure and underlying mathematical models.


Shortly before the third generation of the product appeared, the CEO of MECC announced that The Oregon Trail was currently generating one-third of MECC’s revenues. Even after the third generation product was released and sold well, the second generation product continued to be sold as the “classic” version of the game.

Third Generation


MECC released Oregon Trail II, the first re-imagined version of the game in ten years, thereby launching the third generation of the game. The principal designer of this version was Wayne Studer. In some ways this third generation was quite similar to the second generation, carrying over all of the innovations from that generation. However, many of these pre-existing features were augmented by adding new details and complexity. Some completely new features were also added, such as being able to play the game in any of 20 different historical years. The combination of new details and new features clearly distinguished the game from its predecessors. The new product sold exceedingly well, generating a lot of revenue for Softkey, the company that bought MECC in 1995.


Softkey and its successors (The Learning Company, Riverdeep, Broderbund) released three new versions of the game, labeling them as “3rd Edition”, “4th Edition”, and “5th Edition”. One reason for these releases was the changing hardware – as personal computers evolved, it was necessary to update the game to keep up with the times. And while the designers of these later versions clearly made changes – revising the appearance of the product, adding new features, and eliminating some existing features – all of these versions can be considered as part of the third generation of the game.

Nostalgic Revival

The current nostalgic revival of The Oregon Trail is based almost entirely on the second generation of the product. Screen shots showing the “original” game are all drawn from the 1985 Apple II version or its equivalent DOS version. Spin-offs such as card games, board games, and handheld devices all make explicit references to the graphics and familiar conventions of the second generation.

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