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The Carletonian

Alum brings history to life: “The Oregon Trail” turns 40

<re you ready? Come on. Let’s go!” For people worldwide, this line triggers a memory of excitement, adventure, and mothers’ screeching “Get off the computer!” In celebration of the 40th year anniversary of the legendary computer game “Oregon Trail,” the creator and Carleton alumnus Don Rawitsch ’72, appeared on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” show hosted by Guy Raz January 29. The game, started in 1971 on at teletype machine, has now expanded to the Iphone and is set to launch on Facebook.

Rawitsch created Oregon Trail when he was having difficulties teaching junior high in Minneapolis. He wanted his students to take more of an interest in U.S. history and so with the help of his two roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, he created a basic computer program that would later sell 65 million copies worldwide. The game allowed his students to choose characters who would then follow the path of Oregon Trail. As Raz stated on the NPR program, this led to “happy memories for millions of schoolchildren who since 1971, have spent hours pretending to set off on that 2,000-mile-long journey in the year 1848.”

Rawitsch first tested the program on the single teletype machine. The machine had no screen and was “like the size of an IBM Selectric typewriter, let’s say, but on a big pedestal.” The entire machine was run by printing text out onto paper. Rawitsch described how it had to be wheeled up to the front of the classroom, and connected “to a phone by taking the handset of the phone and kind of slamming it into a box… that had cups on it. And…that’s how we made the connection.”

Once connected, Rawitsch had students try running the program.  The students felt sheer excitement of using a computer instead of a textbook to learn history. “It was an opportunity for them to make their own decisions and try to solve a real problem,” explained Rawitsch.

Rawitsch had not expected the popularity of the game. “There wasn’t really a consumer market for software in those days because we didn’t even have personal computers yet…We were more taken by the fact that we could actually figure out a way to program the computer to do these things.” Inventions of educationally-based computer games found a market after Oregon Trail paved the way.

Rawitsch concluded his brief conversation with Raz by describing the four lessons he had taken away from studying and creating the Oregon Trail.

“Number one, plan ahead; there’s danger out there. Number two, be patient; the journey is long. Number three, if you persevere you’ll find your green valley. And number four, even if the water is deep, sometimes you just have to caulk your wagon and head out from shore”

And as Raz adds to Rawitsch’s list: “You end up in Oregon if it all works out-which isn’t a bad place to be.”

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