Oregon Trail

Saturday, October 17th, 2009
Life on the Trail

Life on the Trail

Oregon Trail is one of my earliest memories of educational gaming. Down at the end of the hall of my elementary school existed the most cutting edge technology of the 80’s, the Apple II computer.  I recall spending many social studies periods as well as every free minute of time at school perched on a hard orange computer lab chair fighting my way through the perils of pioneer life. We were the core group of Trailians using our recess time to hit up the lab and beat the trail before hazards like, measles, snake bites, dysentery, typhoid, cholera, exhaustion, and diarrhea killed off our travel party. Along with avoiding ravaging diseases we were also struggling to feed our people. Purchasing food supplies was a good start however, there were limited supply stops along the trail and we had to resort to hunting. I assume hunting on the trail was exactly like how the true pioneers experienced it, firing small pixellated bullets and Buffalo, bunnies, squirrels and either deer or elk depending on the version you had. Some hunts were fruitful others fruitless. And for those vegetarians on the trail, well they were out of luck all together. The hardest part of the journey was definitely the river crossings. A lot of work goes into converting your land based wagon to a river worthy vessel. Again whole caravans of pioneers were lost due to lack of swim lessons offered on the trail.

These decisions were quite a lot to deal with at nine years old. Many pioneers did not survive the journey to Oregon and whole parties were lost along the way. We persevered on until we represented the true pioneer spirit and made it to the promise land of Oregon. At the conclusion of our journey we could choose our life’s passion of being a farmer or a carpenter. The right choice could actually double or even triple your score so we had to choose wisely. I always ended up as a framer (triple points) so that I could continue on providing food for the surviving pioneers.

Although I had a lot of fun playing this game and I m sure my teacher also loved claiming it as a means of differentiation in the classroom. Students were only allowed to play the game if we were done with all of our class work. A reward for the punishment of endless worksheets piled on us daily. What if any lessons did I take away from my days on the trail? Definitely the first lesson was that it sucked on the trail and I was supposed to feel fortunate that I lived in such a modern society where decisions were not so life and death. The problem solving aspect of the game helped to form somewhat of a decision-making process in my childhood brain but I remember the true motivation being the attainment of the highest score and not a greater understanding of pioneer life. I do have to acknowledge that since I have such strong memories about Oregon Trail it must have resonated with some aspect of my development or else why would I be sharing all of this with you.

Oregon Trail was not only a pioneer’s virtual journey but also a start to the integration of technology into my educational world as a student and as a budding educator. Even with the many upgrades in computer technology and 3D graphics there is still a perceived lack of true educational value in video games. I am an avid gamer and am happy to see the video game industry attempt to incorporate real world knowledge into their games. However, I would have a hard time convincing parents that playing a first person shooter game like Medal of Honor is going to help their child learn about the historical battles of WWI and WWII. How would I measure this attainment of knowledge? Would a student surviving the game and finishing their missions count as success in gaining new knowledge? What about the violence issues in World War orientated games? Can we remove the reality of death and murder within war scenarios and still get across our intended message? Is a rubric sufficient to evaluate this style of interaction?

I believe until we can develop a more fine tuned way of content delivery within video game interaction in the educational field the majority of these questions will go unanswered. The real challenge is getting parents to see the value of video games in the classroom setting. I know the majority of students have the ability to separate video game violence from real world violence when facilitated properly and I think a deeper level of understanding of real events can be attainted. Emerson within the virtual world can lead to understanding of real world events. I have felt this through video game play. Whether it’s the layers of understanding an adult can apply to games or the knowledge gained from game play there is something worth value within games. It is all in how we present this gamer style education to parents and administrators. The exact manner as to how to achieve this I am still exploring. We are still on the Oregon Trail of educational technology and soon we will reach the promise land. Unfortunately we may lose a few people along the way, a lesson I still hold from my days on the virtual trail.

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2 comments on “Oregon Trail

  1. starkg says:

    For me it was Hammurabi – a text based game on the classroom TRS-80 from Radio Shack. It was in Grade 5, and I still remember it… A great motivational tool and a lot of problem solving skills. Now I’m on the 4th version of Civilization – another good game tracing the development of human knowledge and how to use it to beat up on other “less advanced” cultures. 🙂

    Is content all important or is it enough to learn skills?

    I like games that develop problem solving skills and that have consequences for poor choices – it may not be real life, but hopefully the skills learned are transferable…

    • ccshumay says:

      When games are used in the classroom for educational content delivery then I believe, yes very much so the content has to be there. I believe gaming in education would be a much harder sell to concerned parents or skeptical administrators if there was an apparent lack of educational content. “Play is fine it just has to mean something”. This may become a nice talking point for over involved helicopter parents and would be a definite “no” point for nearly every administrator I have worked for.
      Now I do see there being character education lessons that do not have to be layered with interdisciplinary content but hold a strong message about decision making and provide real world scenarios for students to interact with. Value is embedded in the lessons “point”.

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