The Oregon Trail, MECC, and the Rise of Computer Learning

The Strong National Museum of Play

From the Collections of The Strong National Museum of Play | Rochester, New York

Blazing a Trail in Learning through Computing
Starting in the 1970s, the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) led the world in giving computer access to large numbers of schoolchildren. Over several decades the company’s games taught millions of schoolchildren history, math, science, geography, and other subjects. These engaging games gave many kids their first computer experience and opened up worlds of wonder for them to explore.

Computers for the Masses

In 1968, Dale LeFrenz and other visionary leaders in Minnesota set up TIES (Total Information for Education System), a computer network linking Minneapolis-area suburban schools with mainframe computers via modems.

Making MECC

In 1973, the state chartered MECC, the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, to advance TIES. Within four years, 96 percent of Minnesota children had access to computers, by far the highest rate in the world.

Dale LaFrenz, on right, led the efforts of TIES and MECC to bring computers to school.

A Pioneering Game
MECC’s most successful title was The Oregon Trail, a trailblazing simulation of westward migration in the 1840s. It merged accurate history and good game play. Players forded rivers, fixed broken wagon axles, and survived dysentery on their cross-country trip. The game’s influence, iconic status, and longevity made it a 2016 inductee into The Strong’s World Video Game Hall of Fame.

Creating The Oregon Trail

In 1971, a student teacher name Don Rawitsch wanted his students to understand what it was like for westward pioneers in 1847. So he created a board game that challenged players to travel safely from St. Louis to Oregon. His two roommates, Bill Heinemann and Paul Dillenberger, helped him turn the game into software that ran on the computer connection recently installed at the school.

These 1971 Carleton College yearbook photos of Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger (left to right) show the young student teachers who created The Oregon Trail.

Type “BANG” to Hunt

The first version of The Oregon Trail ran on a bulky teletype terminal. Players read instructions and typed in commands on large spools of paper. There was no computer screen. To shoot animals for food, players had to accurately type words like “BANG,” “POW,” and “BLAM” before the animal escaped.

Type “BANG” to Hunt

The first version of The Oregon Trail ran on a bulky teletype terminal. Players read instructions and typed in commands on large spools of paper. There was no computer screen. To shoot animals for food, players had to accurately type words like “BANG,” “POW,” and “BLAM” before the animal escaped.

This snippet of paper tape was used by MECC for its teletype terminals in the early days of the company.

A True Historical Simulation

In 1973, Don Rawitsch joined MECC. There he revised The Oregon Trail game for publication. These pages from the game’s 1977 user manual show how he combed pioneers’ diaries to determine how often players had accidents, met with bandits, suffered through illnesses, crossed rivers, and overcame other obstacles. Real-life historical records provided the probabilities of such events actually occurring in the game.

Better Learning through Computers
In 1981, the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium began providing their wide catalog of software programs on geography, science, history, and math to schools outside of Minnesota. MECC became the world leader in educational software by packaging the programs with extensive instructional supplements that allowed teachers—many who never used computers before—to fit these games into classroom curriculums.

Seeding the Apple II’s Growth

In 1978, a year after Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs developed the Apple II, MECC representatives recognized that the computer’s affordability, power, and color graphics were perfect for schools. MECC soon purchased thousands of these computers, becoming the largest seller of Apple II computers. Steve Jobs showed his gratitude by giving the keynote at MECC’s 1982 education conference.

Serious Fun

MECC quickly grew in the 1990s, supplying teachers and parents nationwide with a diverse range of high-quality educational products that made learning geography, vocabulary, and mathematics a playful adventure.

Devouring the Competition

MECC’s award-winning title Numbers Munchers proved so popular that one school even held an annual competition. A San Diego elementary school’s yearly Numbers Munchers “Munch-Off” developed students’ basic math skills while it also encouraged students who performed well in educational games but struggled on classroom tests.

A Leader in Educational Computing

MECC generated tidy profits for the state of Minnesota, which sold the company in 1991. In 1994, the company went public with $30 million in annual sales, before being acquired by SoftKey, a company led by Kevin O’Leary (who today stars on the television show Shark Tank).

Decades on the Trail
The Oregon Trail began life as a text-only game on mainframe computers, often bundled with other social studies programs. Kids loved the challenge of outfitting their wagons, navigating obstacles on the trip, and guiding their party to the Pacific Ocean, but MECC programmers made it even more popular by adding graphics, a hunting video game, and even sound.

Keep on Trekkin’

Over the years, programmers at MECC refined and enhanced The Oregon Trail with new animations and mini-games to take advantage of improvements in computer processing speed, graphics, and sound. These changes kept the game fresh for players who still loved the basic challenge of helping 19th-century pioneers make it safely across the country.

Oregon Trail: A Pop Culture Phenomenon

For many schoolchildren in the 1980s and early 1990s, when few Americans had computers at home, The Oregon Trail provided an entertaining route not only into history but also into the digital universe. Perhaps that explains why the game become so beloved. Certainly some of its features and catchphrases—most famously “You have died of dysentery”—have become widely recognized memes.

In the newest mobile version, The Oregon Trail: American Settler, player pioneers leave the trail to build shelters, tend to livestock and crops, manage resources, and protect their settlement from disease and disaster.

Still Blazing Trails
Initially played on massive mainframe computers, The Oregon Trail is perhaps the oldest continuously available video game ever made. With more than 65 million copies sold, it still has lessons to teach.
Credits: Story

The Oregon Trail, MECC, and the Rise of Computer Learning is produced by The Strong National Museum of Play. Finding Aid to the Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation (MECC) collection, 1967-2015:
http://archives.museumofplay.org/repositories/3/resources/113
See The Oregon Trail courtesy of the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/msdos_Oregon_Trail_The_1990

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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