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  • Writer's pictureJoe Pace

Player of Games, #39: The Oregon Trail

Come on, kids! Typhoid and snake bites for everyone!

As a member of Gen X, there are certain cultural touchstones we all share. Star Wars, for instance, as foundational myth. Pee-Wee Herman, Indiana Jones, Weird Al Yankovic. MTV.

And The Oregon Trail.

I think the durable nostalgic prominence of this game is that it was a computer game they not only allowed us to play in school, but actually included as a curricular component. Navigating this digital dystopian hellscape was framed as an educational exercise! Teachers were trying to figure out how to use the workmanlike Apple II that was suddenly a part of their classroom, and The Oregon Trail was there with its siren song of occupied students and quasi-historic instruction. Because let's be honest - what did any of us really learn from this program? A little bit of geography, maybe, that it's a long way from Missouri to the Willamette Valley. Some budgeting skills, balancing the need for bullets and food and spare wagon tongues. That you don't ever want dysentery, because that shit will kill you.

If anything, The Oregon Trail was the last gasp of the narrative of manifest destiny, the mythos that the American West was a savage and brutal wilderness to be tamed by shooting buffalo, shooting wolves, shooting the previous inhabitants. The game was first developed in 1971, the same year The Raiders released Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian) and the occupation of Alcatraz by 89 Native Americans in protest of federal policies was forcibly concluded. Recent versions of the game have acknowledged that indigenous peoples were treated with some insensitivity throughout the game's history, and efforts have been underway to remedy that with inclusion of native characters and storylines. Look, anyone can get dysentery.

As much fun as the various online iterations have been, not long ago a tabletop card game version was released. We've played it with our own kids. I won't lie, I was a little bit proud when they left us behind in shallow graves somewhere in the Rockies when the medicine ran out. The Oregon Trail isn't for the faint of heart, then or now.

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