Game history

Interview with inventor Don Rawitsch.

Fifty years ago this winter, a young student teacher by the name of Don Rawitsch presented his eighth grade American history class with a computer game about the Westward Expansion that he had developed with his colleagues Bill. Heinemann and Paul Dillenberger. The game, called The Oregon Trail, would sell over 65 million copies, many to educational institutions, making it one of the best-selling games of all time, with Super Mario Bros. and Tetris. But when I spoke to Rawitsch recently, he said that when he first came up with the idea, making money was the furthest thing on his mind.

“In 1971, there was a lot of activity around the world of schools to improve curricula and find innovative teaching methods,” Rawitsch said. Inspired by his teachers at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, Rawitsch decided to pursue new types of pedagogy for his student teacher classes at Jordan Junior High School in Minneapolis. “I was excited and maybe a little naive,” Rawitsch recalls. “I really wanted to do things in the classroom that the students weren’t necessarily used to. »Before developing The Oregon Trail, Rawitsch had taken a course with another instructor dressed like Lewis and Clark and attempted to speak and answer questions like the famous explorers. For the Civil War lessons, he tried to tell students about battles through songs he wrote and performed in class with his guitar. Rawitsch also worked with a track and field coach at Jordan Junior High on a student mock trial mission that started with someone getting shot with a starter gun – the kind of innovative pedagogy that would definitely do you. transfer today.

For his westward expansion classes, Rawitsch decided to try something a little safer: a board game with a large map and covered wagons. “In my work at the university,” said Rawitsch, “I had seen examples of educational games that were in a box game format… [and] I was a bit fascinated by the idea that this would be something you would do in a classroom that would probably be a lot more interesting for students than just reading about history. Rawitsch began working on this board game in the apartment he shared with other teachers at Carleton College, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, who both taught math and dabbled in computer programming. They suggested to Rawitsch to abandon the paper and pencil approach; they would help her convert this game into a computer program that could run on her school’s teletype, a machine without a monitor connected via the telephone line at a mainframe in downtown Minneapolis. The two math teachers sometimes used the machine in their own classrooms; when they weren’t using it, the teletype lived in the school concierge closet.

Rawitsch introduced the resulting game, which he called Oregon at the time, in his class on Friday, December 3, 1971. “We spent a week at Oregon Trail, recalls Rawitsch, [the students] had four or five days to try it. And they were… compared to the usual non-excitement of reading the story… extremely excited to do this and fascinated by the computer. For many Rawitsch students, this moment was not only their first time playing a digital game, but also their first time using a computer. Rawitsch believes that among the students he taught, “probably 90% of them had never had the opportunity to take turns on the only computer” at school.

The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, New York

As a result, Rawitsch gathered his class into groups of five to play together. This setup gave everyone an opportunity with the computer, allowed students to collectively troubleshoot the machine, and mimicked the family dynamic of traveling the historic Oregon Trail. “The kids took their turn,” said Rawitsch, “every little group… gathered around the TTY terminal. And, of course, they were all anxious to read the output that was printed by [the machine]. “

This first version of The Oregon Trail was designed to complement students’ knowledge of westward expansion, but it also tested their abilities in resource management, teamwork, and typing. For example, to hunt for food, students had to accurately and quickly type either “BANG” or “POW” into the machine, or risk missing their target. “The five children wanted to type [at the same time], and they wanted it to be done very quickly, “said Rawitsch,” and they soon found out that was not the most efficient way to do it because invariably they were getting typos. During their week on The Oregon Trail, each group of students completed at least one full game, with some successfully reaching Oregon. But their enthusiasm for the game didn’t stop there. “There were times when some groups finished their trip before the bell rang,” Rawitsch recalls, “and so the kids… started over for as long as they could. … Once I have started to use it [game] in my classes i brought in students after school and lunch time etc just because they wanted to try it a few times.

This is the moment in the biopic where the creators realize they’re sitting on a gold mine, and they convert The Oregon Trail into a commercial product. But instead, at the end of that fall semester, Rawitsch, Heinemann, and Dillenberger, those humble and respectful student teachers, printed the game’s source code from the ticker machine and deleted it. The Oregon Trail from the school district mainframe. The game that would sell 65 million copies would spend the next three years on file in Rawitsch’s bedroom office. It was, after all, a unique classroom exercise for a grade eight history class taught by a student teacher.

How, then, did this game get from Rawitsch’s office to millions of classroom computers across the country? “I was hired by the MECC [Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium] in October 1974, “said Rawitsch,” and we had a shared library where people could submit programs that they had written and then the staff would decide if it was worth putting them in the library. [for students across the state]. … So over Thanksgiving weekend I had a cold and had nothing else to do. … I decided to bring a laptop [teletype] terminal back home. And from the kitchen phone, I logged into the MECC computer and typed the code line by line into the [Oregon Trail] print. “After Thanksgiving, Rawitsch” started showing it to the staff and they were excited. So then [Oregon Trail] became available to schools in Minnesota that used this mainframe, and over the next two years it became extremely popular.

Print for Oregon: A computerized historical simulation with a decision tree describing the gameplay
Page of 1977 Oregon Trail User Manual.
The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, New York

So this is the time when the financial windfall arrives, right? Pay overtime to work on Thanksgiving, at least? “No,” Rawitsch said with a laugh, “there was just no knowledge of it. I considered myself an educator. The Oregon Trail gained popularity in Minnesota, Rawitsch the educator decided to share the source code for the game in an article for the national magazine Creative Computing in 1978. “I think the fact that it was in 1978,” argues Rawitsch, “Indicates that then we still did not understand that there would soon be a software market. A large. … So should [I] write an article on The Oregon Trail … And then give you all the code so you can type it in something else? Yeah why not! ”Rawitsch continued,“ When you are an educator you are encouraged to write and publish.… Paul, Bill and I, at the end of the day, we were teachers. We have the teacher mentality. , [to get] rich, that would have been nice, but not as important as donating to education.

Story-themed digital games, of course, are big business now, with titles like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, and Red Dead Redemption 2 representing some of the highest grossing games of recent years. But in this mix of ahistoric action and exhilaration, there is still room for educators to get involved. Assassin’s Creed Discovery Tour: The Viking Age presents the work of dozens of academics from around the world. The adventures of Charles Games Attack 1942 and Svoboda 1945 rely on advice from instructors and public funding. The first person narrative game Blackhaven was developed by a doctor of history. This year, the leading academic journal, the American Historical Review, began to include video game articles and reviews. And the latest version of Oregon Trail includes contributions from three Indigenous historians, to consider westward expansion from an indigenous perspective.

For Don Rawitsch, who would work for the MECC for almost 20 years, this latest iteration of Oregon Trail is welcome. For an educator who gave his best lesson plan, the goal was not to be authoritative, but to create a platform that could be used by others and iterated, with better technology but also a better story. .