The Last Word

 Along ‘The Oregon Trail’Computer Game Inspires a Gen-Nexter’s Nostalgia Trip

By John Eric Vona

It’s been months since your party departed from Independence, Mo. You’re running low on rations and winter is coming on. Your mother has cholera, your best friend died of dysentery and you’re out of spare wagon wheels.

So what’s a pioneer do? Hunt, of course.

Any student of the American public school system in the early 1990s had the pleasure of having an early IBM or Apple II in the classroom — or a computer lab full of them down the hall. Some kids had assigned times when they were supposed to use the computer; others were given the choice between playing outside at recess or staying in to use the computer.

The challenge for teachers was figuring out how to incorporate these new tools into the learning process. The solution came in the form of the earliest educational computer games — and the favorite for students across the country was “The Oregon Trail.”

The pair of Apple IIs at the back of my second-grade classroom were used purely as a reward for finishing work early. In truth, they were just a way for the teacher to keep everyone busy — but nothing made me add and subtract faster than the prospect of an all-American adventure.

For those too old to have had computers in the classroom or too young to know the classics, “The Oregon Trail” wasn’t just an educational game — it was also a historical one. The opening screen informed players that the year was 1848 and gave them a number of options to choose from, such as what their profession would be and what month to set out. Then players would purchase supplies, select the other members in their party (usually the names of one’s friends and family) and set out. Half the fun was the godlike feeling of setting the level of rations to “meager” for people you didn’t like, or having your pesky little sister break her leg in a wagon accident.

The game was slow-paced to mirror the long and grueling journey westward. Along the way, one would face the hardships of sickness and death. For many boys, myself included, the most entertaining part of the game was hunting, where one would take control of an armed, pixilated stick figure and decimate passing wildlife.

I have recently asked many of peers, “Hey, remember ‘The Oregon Trail’?” All of them did, and many responded with enthusiastic answers such as “I spent all my time hunting!” or “Stupid dysentery got me every time.” There are hundreds of Facebook groups themed around the game, and Florida State University even has its own chapter (with 100-plus members) for the group “I Played Oregon Trail in Elementary School.”

There’s even a version of the game you can download to your iPhone for six bucks.

It may seem silly for a 22-year-old to be nostalgic for the “olden” days. I imagine older adults might not take such sentimental feelings for a game seriously — particularly when relative youngsters are longing for a time in the not-so-distant past.

But a member of Generation Next — we’re the ones that came after Generation X — feels the same desire to be a kid again that a middle-aged person does. We’re entering the work force in a time when jobs are scarce and money issues hit hard. Oh, to once again be so carefree that one’s mind is consumed with thoughts not of stock prices or layoffs, but of “How am I going to get to Oregon, the promised land?” or “What am I going to write on my little brother’s grave when he dies of cholera?”

Longing for a simpler time goes hand-in-hand with “The Oregon Trail,” a game conceived by those who grew up watching spaghetti Westerns and who themselves longed for the freedom of youth and the dreams of adventure that came with it. The West may be won now, but the desire for adventure, the need to have a place of your own, and the drive to brave new frontiers remains.

Be it “Bonanza” or “The Oregon Trail,” everyone — young or old — had a childhood, and everyone wants his or her slice of the American Dream.