Why Oregon Trail Is Still Perfect For Your Classroom

Most of us have grown up playing computer games, and spending hours trying to beat a level (that dragon at the end of world 1-4 in Super Mario Bros still haunts my dreams) or gain a special skill that makes our character stronger (don’t forget to collect as many heart jars as you can for Link!).

Most of us also know that games can be educational, and can even be used for learning in schools. Important sounding theories like “experiential learning” or “scaffolding” explain how games can be good learning tools, but don’t really help the average person understand why a particular sequence of play is so engaging, or why one game teaches fractions better than another. This series of posts will take a close up look at specific games and try to understand how and why they teach.

Since this is my first educational game review for Edudemic, I figured I’d start at the beginning, where it all began…at least for me. The first educational computer game I remember playing in school is Oregon Trail (the second is Sticky Bear Typing – anyone else play that?). You can play the original Apple game online here – http://www.virtualapple.org/oregontraildisk.html, although unfortunately there is no save option yet.

Game Title: Oregon Trail

Oregon Trail Look Around South Pass

Target Age: Elementary and middle school students, I’d say it’s most appropriate for 5th – 8th graders.

Game description: Oregon Trail is a role playing game that challenges players to cross the Oregon Trail, a route across the US that connected the Missouri River to areas Westward.

Main Gameplay: RPG – allows player to choose a character, and describes strengths and weaknesses of each character. The player has to make choices along the way that affect overall party health and supplies. Choices have to balance the need to travel fast enough to arrive at the end before the weather gets too hot, with the need for using supplies at a steady rate. The goal is to maintain enough health and supplies to get the party safely across the Oregon Trail. Points are awarded at the end of the game based on the player’s status when they reach the end.

Main educational goal: The many thousands of settlers who crossed this dangerous route each year, often with families, contributed to the expansion of the US to the West Coast. Playing this game really helps players understand the difficulties that were involved in navigating this passage, and the risks that people undertook in order to find their fortunes.

Overview: Players begin at Matt’s general store, where they can buy supplies for the trip. First you are prompted to enter the names of the people in your traveling party, or you can hit enter and let the computer choose names. When you enter Matt’s store you are given a list of the things you should buy, and Matt suggests how much you should buy of each item.

Oregon Trail Matt's store

At each fort you have the option of taking to people. This is not mandatory for gameplay to continue, but this is where most of the information about the trail are given over to the player. There seem to be 3 different people at each fort that you can talk to. The information they provide can help players make more informed decisions during the game (ie when to hunt, how fast to travel). Players are given feedback at the end of each day and can adjust various options (speed, rate of food consumption) or perform various actions (hunting for food, stopping to rest).

What I like about this game: Each time the player has to make a choice, they can get more information about the options provided. The information provided is brief – usually only one screen – and “just in time,” ie provided when the player needs it. This is a more efficient way to teach than providing all the information in the beginning and expecting the player to remember it later or go back and look it up when they need it, and players are more likely to remember the information later on if they get it at the same time that they need to apply it.

However, the game does not provide all information that players might need, for example I kept losing supplies – and sometimes party members – at rivers that did not seem deep to me, but I later found out in a game walk through were too deep to try to cross without caulking or finding a ferry. While part of the learning is finding out through trial and error, there was no feedback when I tipped over that would help me figure out what the limits might be.

Oregon Trail crossing river

Conclusion: While graphics have come along way over the years, the basic game here still holds up. It is an effective simulation that teaches players about the challenges that travelers faced during the Westward expansion and the choices they had to make. As with any simulation the first round or two of play can be slow and frustrating until players get the hang of the options that are available to them. The game can certainly be replayed multiple times, and is much more fun each time as you learn to make more efficient choices. It definitely seems like it would be fun to play through with a friend, making it a great educational simulation to use in a classroom.

Learning techniques used:

  • Chunking of information
  • Providing “just in time” information
  • Situated learning, ie placing learning in context