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The Oregon Trail

Read This: A detailed history of the genesis and development of The Oregon Trail

By John Teti • July 30, 2013

42 years ago, Carleton College seniors Bill Heinemann, Paul Dillenberger, and Don Rawitsch, searching for a way to get kids interested in western expansion, invented The Oregon Trail. Mental Floss has a lengthy feature about the genesis and history of the game, and it’s a truly fascinating read.

Originally intended to be a board game, The Oregon Trail first entertained and educated Minnesota kids via teletype, and then a few years later, with the cooperation of the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (also known as MECC, an acronym any old school Trail players might be familiar with) moved over to the Apple II. From there the game went from text-based to four-color graphics, and started using phrases like “You have died of dysentery.”

Since the late ’70s, the game has had a number of iterations, including an iPhone-based version that’s been downloaded over 4 million times. In the ’90s, there was almost a version of the game that would have had Barbie traversing the road from Independence, Missouri to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Thankfully, Mattel, who owned the game at the time, started hemorrhaging money around that time and that version of the game never came to fruition.

One sad note about the invention of Oregon Trail: Heinemann, Dillenberger, and Rawitsch never really made all that much money off the game. Still, Rawitsch says, it’s not a sore point. He told Mental Floss, “so many others had a hand making it what it became that we never think, ‘Gee, we got ripped off.’” He now works as a consultant to educational tech companies in the Chicago area, and Dillenberger and Heinemann are educators.  

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