Tuesday, March 3, 2009
For any child growing up in the nineties, Oregon Trail was the number-one selling manifest destiny-themed 19th century Western expansion settler game on the two-color screen computer market. In an era ripe with educational computer games full of thinly disguised learning opportunities, Oregon Trail stood out as the the most exciting thing thing to hit our elementary classroom-based Apple IIs since Pacman.
Though meant to evoke our good old American pioneering spirit, players quickly learned to circumvent the multitude of educational elements in favor of endlessly hunting buffalo. Ah, glorious, slow-moving buffalo. They can creep by slowly, but they can't hide. Imagine, a game endorsed by parents and teachers in which we were allowed to wield rifles, shoot any innocent creature that dared venture across our monitor, and morbidly pile up our "kill" to revel in our own uninhibited bloodthirsty nature. There's nothing like a lighthearted killing spree to memorialize the devastation of the rudiment of Native American existence.
We would round up our ludicrously self-named wagon crew, loaded up my oxen, get tricked into learning some light math as we stopped by those handy local trading posts, and bravely pressed space bar to continue. In the process of fording the river and thus turning my wagon into a shoddy ox-laden raft, we frequently found that three of our five wagoneers had drowned. Clearly, we were just not cut out for fording. Either that or maybe we should not have chosen to buy a yoke of 8 ill-fated and unnecessary oxen. But hey, at least we learned the word yoke.
Thankfully, we could have another buffalo shooting spree to bury our grief at the loss of our wagonmates. We could choose to test my skill at the occasional quick-darting rabbit or deer, but let's not fool ourselves. In our own modern lazy American spirit ironically in contention with the gung-ho pioneer spirit, we all just wanted to kill things that couldn't outwit or outrun us. There was no more irritating pixelated proclamation than that regarding our inability to effectively tote buffalo carcasses from trading post to trading post along the Western plain. Sure, I had killed 14000 pounds of food, but my wagon could only hold 80. Especially if dysentery or smallpox had yet to kill off my sole remaining human companion, there was never nearly enough room to bask in my buffalo bounty. A travesty, indeed.
Along the way, we would pick up some useful tidbits of information about the local landmarks and suspiciously knowledgeable settlers we passed in our wagon travels. No matter how educational this game claimed to be, I challenge you to find a single grown former Oregon Trail junkie who can name a single landmark or historical figure that they encountered out on the trail. Most of what we remember has more to do with the morbid ability to engrave our own tombstones and the frustration of losing yet another pesky wagon axle.
The truth of the matter was that the educational aspects of the game were its fatal flaw. Those of us with a lot of time on our hands and a distinctly impatient attitude toward forced history lessons realized that if you quit stopping by every place to learn something and just pressed "continue", you could both survive your journey and reach your final destination without learning a thing. In those days though, there was still enough fun left in the novelty of colorful graphics and computerized music to keep us coming back for more.
Buffalo, that is.
Check it out:
Hitting the Oregon Trail on the iPhone