An Interview With the Teacher-Turned-Developer Behind 'Oregon Trail'

Oregon Trail, the computer simulation that sends students on a sometimes perilous journey west in the 19th century and that made its way into classrooms across the country in the 1980s and 1990s (and beyond), was originally created by three student teachers — two who led math classrooms and one who led a history class.

Yester writer Jeremy Shea, himself a high school history teacher, decided to reach out to the history teacher in that equation, Don Rawitsch, to talk about games, education, history, and the intersection of all three. A transcript of their conversation follows.

Jeremy Shea (JS): Thank you for talking to us, Don. A lot of us have fond memories of Oregon Trail and consider it a highlight of elementary school, so having the chance to ask you some questions is just fantastic.

So to start things off, where did you get the idea for Oregon Trail? I gather you were student teaching in Minnesota in 1971, but where did you think of using a video game as an educational tool?

Don Rawitsch (DR): Well as a technical point, it wasn't a video game, as it had no video. It was a computer game.

JS: Ah, my bad.

DR: My training to be a teacher included a lot of emphasis on doing innovative things, so when I had my opportunity to do my student teaching, I tried to think of as many things as I could that could get the kids, get their noses out of the textbook. So one of the things that occurred to me was the use of games in the classroom. Now I wasn't thinking computers at the time, I didn't really have a background in it, but I was thinking games that could be used that relied on rolling dice or flipping cards or what was available at the time.

I think back then I was teaching high school — I was teaching the American Revolution — and I actually created a little game to try to simulate the British collection of taxes from the colonies that included the tax information but also included a number of, uh, under the table activities. There were random events that could influence things. So I was interested in trying (games) out.

My second assignment for student teaching was in junior high and I was to teach the westward movement in the 19th century in the US. So I thought, What if I created a huge map on butcher paper of the that part of the country and plotted some of the trails that pioneers used and then figure out something with dice or cards? I can't really take credit for the initial spark of the idea for using computers, but it was my idea to try to incorporate some kind of game. It happened I was sharing an apartment with a couple of student teachers, both of whom were math teachers.

At the time in the Minneapolis public schools, where we were doing our teaching, the district was a forward thinking district and implemented a computer system that could be accessed in the schools through a telephone line as a kind of primitive setup. You did the work on the computer on a teletype, a keyboard device that only printed on paper. My two cohorts had their experience on computer programming in their college work in mathematics, so when they saw me on the floor with this giant map trying to figure out what to do, they looked at each other and said, "I think this will lend itself to a computer program."

JS: So they tackled the technical aspects while you were the one putting in the ideas for what elements of Oregon Trail you wanted to see for the students?

DR: Right. I tried to implement whatever historical foundation I could.

JS: Was there anything you wanted in Oregon Trail that the structure of a computer game didn't allow you?

DR: Well, not that I can recall. We didn't have a lot of examples to look at to figure out what to do. Maybe part of my answer causes me to jump ahead for a couple of years.

After the initial invention of the game it kind of lay dormant for a couple of years until I ended up getting employed at an agency in Minnesota after college. It was set up to help schools come to grips with the fact that computers were coming. So one of the things that I did other than bringing the code to the computer system that ran in the state of Minnesota was to do some research in some diaries of people who actually made the trip on Oregon Trail.

I decided that the thing to do was to create a scorecard of things they reported in their diaries and then use that as the basis for determining the probability that certain things would happen. So if the diaries, for example, indicated that on 15 percent of the days there was some mention of bad weather, then we could build into the computing code that there was a 15 percent probability of each turn of being victim of bad weather. I was eventually able to bring a more specific and focused historical research to the development of the program, but when we first invented it we were still student teachers, and I was more going by the textbook.

JS: Was the initial game, the one before you were rolling with primary source documents, a little more barebones? Can give me a rundown of the basic gameplay of that original version?

DR: It was actually a little more robust than you might think. Between the three of us, we carried a lot of ideas. The game was played as a series of turns. Each turn represented two weeks of time since it generally took people about six months to reach the west coast, if they made it. Typically the game took about 12 turns, which was about 45 to 60 minutes, which was a good fit for our class period. I ultimately wrote a teachers guide where I documented all of the stuff that related to the game, including a diagram that followed all the pathways you might follow for any given turn.

You started out by making decisions on how fast you wanted to travel and how much food you wanted to consume and whether you wanted to hunt or stop at a fort, and depending on those choices, you did those various activities. Then the computer determined, through some probability statements, random events that could happen to you relating to the weather, or injuries, or your wagon breaking down, or your oxen dying and with every one of those events that could happen, there was in the code a consequence to your resource totals. Your food might go down, you might lose supplies, you might get slowed up if your wagon had a problem.

So one of the things I think was key to kids enjoying playing this over and over again was the fact was that although it was simple for the user to operate, the overall model was complex enough for the user to never experience the same turn twice.

JS: I imagine that the students enjoyed that mystery. Even if they thought, "Let's start slowly and stock up food," they still could meet their downfall.

DR: Right. If you decided to take it too slow in order to conserve your resources, you would hit the Rocky Mountains in the onset of winter, which would kick in a whole set of winter related, snow related misfortunes; the kind that beset settlers. I'm not sure if you've sat down at a teletype.

JS: No, I've never had that joy.

DR: Well sometimes you'll see in the old movies that take place in a newsroom a teletype in action. It prints out like a typewriter would but (at) a rather slow pace, typically ten characters printed per second.

Today we would say that's a real disadvantage for things to move slowly, but actually, one of the neat things about that was that it kind of unveiled what was happening to you more slowly. It didn't just all flash on the screen. It was like getting a news bulletin on the wire. So what happened was that the students, who could not predict what was going to happen to them, were all crowded around, waiting for the results of their decisions to be typed out for them and I think that was part of their excitement.

JS: So you had this idea, and with students crowded around the machine, clearly you knew it was popular. While creating the game, did you think that students would be so enamored by the game that it would catch on like wildfire? I mean, it's now part of American pop culture.

DR: Well, it wasn't a situation like you'd have today where you have people working in an office creating a product for the marketplace, saying to themselves, "Wow we've been so creative here that we're going to make millions of dollars."

But when we first invented this thing during student teaching, we had a week or two to try it out for the classes. At the time, the schools would only have maybe only one teletype, so if you wanted to use the computer connection, you might have to wait your turn or schedule a time or wait in line. Once we showed the thing to the students, the line was down the hall. So it was obvious watching them that there was something special about it.

At the time this was during the period where computers were appearing in schools, so the whole idea was kind of new to kids and they didn't have computers at home; it was very unique. That was a lucky thing for us. At that time there weren't large libraries of computer applications that you could use. There were some, but I estimate that at least half of what went on when the teacher would use the computer connection in the his or her classroom, the teacher was showing the kids how to program computers. The idea that there was this game that didn't just take five minutes to do — it took almost an hour — was very unique.

JS: For you as a young student teacher at the time, what was the reaction from older teachers who might question why you were deviating from the norm?

DR: First of all, I'm sure that only a few teachers in one of the schools that we were teaching in knew anything about what the computer could do in the classroom. It wasn't that they were judging it, but they didn't have any experience. But I can tell you that the two teachers that I taught under (as a student teacher) were both guys who were in the second half of their careers. [They] were guys in their fifties, and they taught right out of the textbook. They had no great desire to be innovative, with or without a computer terminal.

So anything that we could do as the younger teachers, the kids generally appreciated. A couple of times, for example, I dressed up as a historical figure. That itself was more fun than they had in history.

JS: It seems that students often come into history classes questioning why they learn history. It's not that they don't appreciate the story, but the way they get information is different. Reading textbooks just doesn't do it anymore. Why hasn't the educational community embraced video games as a method of teaching, especially history, which can be such an interactive subject?

DR: It's true. In my whole career, it has seemed like social studies has always been bringing up the rear for using the computer. I don't know if this is true where you teach, but in the days when I was doing my student teaching and working with teachers, it wasn't unusual for a lot of teachers to be focusing actually on athletic coaching. They had to be certified in something and they picked a subject area that they felt took the least amount of challenge.

It is very easy to assign pages of the textbook everyday so that you can go out and work with the football team afterward. You know if you going to do innovative stuff in the classroom you have to put in the extra work and prep for it, and there are only a certain percentage of teachers willing to do that.

JS: President Obama announced recently that business leaders have pledged $750 million toward strengthening student access to technology. Do you think it would behoove the powers that be to put some of that money toward getting teachers trained to engage students in technology, not just provide them with iPads?

DR: One thing that is interesting if you've been in education for a while, is that the field goes through innovations or fads on a fairly regular cycle. Teachers tend to approach those fads with the mantra, "This too shall pass." And typically it has passed. When I was in school, our school experimented with something called flexible scheduling. Instead of going to history class five days every week, sometimes you'd have a large group lecture, sometimes you'd have small group with a project, and some days you wouldn't have history class. And that's not around anymore, for the most part.

One of the things that has occurred to me is that the use of technology is one of those rare things that did not pass, and society has embraced it to the point that you can't ignore it in schools. You can't ignore it as a teacher, and it is your responsibility to prepare your students for the world that they're going to enter when they leave school. I've never thought there were good excuses for not getting involved.

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cover image: Crossing the Rio Grande, c. 1910. From The Library of Congress