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Oregon Trail — How 3 Minnesotans Forged Its Path 53

Posted by Soulskill
from the you-have-died-of-dysentary dept.
antdude writes "City Pages has a story and a visual history about the creation and development of Oregon Trail, one of the most popular educational games of all time. Quoting: 'With no monitor, the original version of Oregon Trail was played by answering prompts that printed out on a roll of paper. At 10 characters per second, the teletype spat out, "How much do you want to spend on your oxen team?" or, "Do you want to eat (1) poorly (2) moderately or (3) well?" Students typed in the numerical responses, then the program chugged through a few basic formulas and spat out the next prompt along with a status update. "Bad illness—medicine used," it might say. "Do you want to (1) hunt or (2) continue?" Hunting required the greatest stretch of the user's imagination. Instead of a point-and-shoot game, the teletype wrote back, "Type BANG."'"
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Oregon Trail — How 3 Minnesotans Forged Its Path

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  • !

    How just a bang will make it through the spam filter, I shall not dare to guess.

    Cat got your tongue? (something important seems to be missing from your comment ... like the body or the subject!)

    It won't, thus the subject is now more than !

    HEX

    • by plover (150551) *

      FULL BELLIES TONIGHT!

      • by Teancum (67324)

        YOU CAUGHT A BIG ONE!

  • "Do you want to eat (1) poorly (2) moderately or (3) well?" Students typed in the numerical responses

    Just look at how far we have come [slashdot.org] since then.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 01, 2011 @08:37AM (#35066316)

    One died of dysentery

  • by argStyopa (232550) on Tuesday February 01, 2011 @08:53AM (#35066388) Journal

    I remember sitting in our Kenyon high school's computer lab (in reality, a single MECC terminal sitting on a closet - maybe a 6'x6' room) as a 2nd grader, dialing in to MECC and sticking the handset into the 300-baud coupler before sitting for what was probably hours of exciting adventure on the Oregon Trail, over and over and over.

    That had to be 1975? 1974?

    It was by far the coolest thing I'd ever experienced. Not just the honor of getting to use a computer, but the challenge of beating what was in fact a very hard game.

    • And I again played Oregon Trail in...had to be '92? obviously not on a MECC. Oh how a game can span generations. Nowadays you are lucky if your original concept receives any praise beyond the sequel. Playing Dead Space 2 ATM and enjoying it as much as the first....but oh how does my 21st century attention wane as I wait for stasis to refill or necromorphs to appea...FWAR GJER Shit!!
      • by plover (150551) *

        And I again played Oregon Trail in...had to be '92? obviously not on a MECC.

        MECC was the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, not the brand of terminal. In 1974 or 1975 the terminal was likely a Teletype ASR 33; later on the schools started purchasing ASR 43s. MECC operated two different mainframe computers, starting with a UNIVAC 1100, and later replacing it with a CDC Cyber 73. They were made accessible via dialup modem lines to all the schools in Minnesota. MECC also developed educational software, part of which is the history explained in TFA.

        By the time you were pla

        • By the time you were playing Oregon Trail in 1992, you were likely on the PC version.

          IIRC, 1992 is when the DOS version was first released, but I might be wrong. In any case, I also remember playing it around 1992 (possibly 1993), and it was definitely the Apple II version.

          In related news, I can't believe the summary didn't mention that it's being released on Facebook tomorrow. :)

          • by ryanov (193048)

            Most people played the Apple II version, I would figure. It's in the article that way as well.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      I played "Oregon Trail" in 1983-84 as part of my class, and it was not based on a computer. It was all read-out of a book like an old D&D game.

      I thought the game "cheated" at the end, because the entire class made-out very well until the end, with no deaths, but then we reached the Sierra Mountains going into california. We were all exterminated.

      What a letdown. A year of progress, just to die. I concluded the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books (and later Zork, Mindshadow, M.U.L.E.) were more fun than O

      • by hedwards (940851)

        Eh, that's how that game was, there was a tremendous amount of luck involved. Personally, I preferred the version for the Apple ][ SE which had those cool minigames.

      • by Creepy (93888)

        In 1978 there was a computer version of it for Apple ][, and by 1980 it even had graphics.

        Admittedly, not all schools had computers in 1984, and heck, I would say technology digressed as I went through school - in elementary school we had an open lab with at first an 8k Apple ][, and by the time I left they had a dozen 64k Apple ][e machines. My Jr High had an 8k Apple ][ for all 3 years and didn't get any new computers until 2 years after I left (then they opened a computer lab with a dozen IBM PCs). My hi

        • by ryanov (193048)

          I'm not trying to be a grammar nazi here... but does anyone know if that's the proper use of the word digress? I've never seen it used that way before and was thrown.

          • by Jonah Hex (651948)

            At first I thought it should be "digressed even more" but then realized that the usage of digress is probably completely wrong and resolved not to think of such a niggardly issue.

            HEX

      • by Jaqenn (996058)
        My 4th grade class did something like this as well, and I thought it was awesome. We had to write out a family character sheet of sorts, and choose what equipment to buy and bring. The students were grouped into traveling parties of 4-6 families.

        In retrospect, I think the random encounters were done well. Instead of dice rolls, your success/failures were usually like this:

        - automatic success if you choose the right path or brought the right stuff
        - skill based success with scaling difficulty if you
      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        The early parts of the trip were physically the easiest at the time, flattest, best-established roads and trails, and so on. Then you got into dry country, and then into mountains which are hard going with beast-driven wagons. Supplies are lowest. Some of the people you started the trip with may not be alive (and even in the game, I think we've all lost people to a snake bite when we expected them to make it...)

    • If you had a 300 baud coupler, you were either in one of the rich school districts or close to the University of Minnesota. Most of the connections were 110 baud, or the "high speed" connections were a whopping 220 baud during that era (74-75). A few years later with some help from the good folks at AT&T (then Northwestern Bell Telephone Company that later became U.S. West and now Quest communications) the main trunk lines were upgraded and most of the connections were upgraded to 300 baud.... but that was about 1980 when that happened.

      Most of the connections were routed to a dedicated phone line in an attempt to cut costs, where the connections were put through a multiplexer that was broken apart at the main computing facility at the University of Minnesota. This permitted most of the schools in a typical school district to use a local telephone number as it was in the local phone exchange too. Sometimes smaller school districts would share the same connections, and in my hometown the local community college and even a branch research lab of the University of Minnesota shared the connection.

      When I was in high school, I discovered that the main telephone equipment for some reason was routed through the classroom where the computer science classes were held (Mr. Knudsen's 3rd floor classroom in Austin high school in Austin MN). I and a bunch of kids in the high school held what amounted to be a computer club, and often the teacher would lock the doors to the classroom and say "make sure you close the door when you leave" where we would sometimes stay for an hour or two after school... sometimes a bit longer than that.

      We discovered a neat trick where if we unplugged the multiplexor, it would at least temporarily shut down the connections for everybody in the town. Keep in mind this was when phone lines were still somewhat unreliable, and typically when a connection dropped most people would re-dial the phone number to get back on and didn't think anything was really wrong with the equipment. In the meantime while everybody else in all of the other school districts (including I might add some college professors and college students trying to get major programming assignments finished) were busy redialing, my friends and I would quickly dial in and grab one of the temporary "empty" connections... essentially kicking other students off of the computer. Let's just say that the high school students never had to worry about a busy signal in the after-school club and sometimes even during class time. As for everybody else, their computer connections just seems a little less reliable than it really was... or rather they were depending on a bunch of high school students with selfish motives to keep the phone system going.

      I had so much fun with that system where I can't possibly begin, and much of that began with playing Oregon Trail. Yes, I got bored with that game and moved on, but it ended up making me a computer professional with shall I say an unconventional educational experience. I'll also say that in particular with the Oregon Trail game, it motivated me to learn how to type in a big hurry.... which has helped me throughout life. I particularly learned how to type "POW" and "BANG" in a hurry.

      • by argStyopa (232550)

        Very well could have been a 110, as we were neither a wealthy district nor near the Cities. I simply thought all the old phone-couplers were 300 - this was long before I cared about hardware, aside from all the essential coolness of "working" on a computer. :)

        Yep, it was an old ASR33 with a separate acoustic coupler.
        Then in 6th grade when we moved up to Bloomington, I remember how in awe I was at their sexy brand-new ASR-43. It was like I was IN a science-fiction movie.

        Ah the days. I probably kept severa

    • I played in 1977 at North Branch HS. We had a computer programming class with the teletype connected to MECC in Mankato. We thought it was funny that you could whistle into the modem to get it to try and connect (the modem was literally a box with cups for sticking the phone handset into). The terminal had a paper tape feed. We would have a BANG ready to feed in when it asked. We saved all our own programs on paper tape feed. When I went to Winona State University then next year we still connected to MECC,
      • by swrider (854292)

        When I went to Winona State University then next year we still connected to MECC, only now we moved up to punch cards. All our programming all 4 years was saved on punch cards. When programs were due towards the end of the quarter there would be sometimes a 2 hour wait from when you fed your cards in until you got your response from Mankato.

        You were feeding your card deck into a Sperry 1004. In Mankato, at the end of the quarter, there were so many card decks being processed that the weight didn't even need to be put on the stack of cards in the input hopper. The printer was pretty much running continuously, also, since most of the programs would error off immediately, due to syntax errors.

        The Sperry 1106 you were feeding your card decks into was not a part of MECC, though. It was the academic processor for the State University Subsystem

    • by Eyeballs (64172)

      Our teletype was hooked into the school district's computer (dedicated land line) and was actually in a classroom, so kids could wander over and see how people were doing.

      There was a printout to the left of the teletype (taped to the wall) which showed the complete game for the fastest trip to Oregon. (They made it by August!)

      According to the linked story, Oregon Trail wasn't available for most of 1974, so I'd say that Styopa and I are remembering the 1975-1976 school year.

      This is the memory I have in mind

  • TFA is actually a pretty interesting read. Who'd have thought that an early educational game could have this kind of history? I remember the old green-screen Apples, playing the Carmen Sandiego games, Oregon Trail, and the "munchers" series. Still not sure if I learned anything from them, other than typing and hand-eye coordination though...

    Just think, an entire generation would never have learned as children what dysentery is; not until they grew up and drank Mexican tap water.
  • There are Facebook and iPhone versions of Oregon Trail.

    And within KDE and Gnome you have clones/remakes of other classic games like Pac-Man and Tetris.

    Honestly, I'm a little surprised the KDE-Edu project doesn't include remakes of Oregon Trail, Lemonade Stand and Carmen Sandiego.

    • I'm a little surprised the KDE-Edu project doesn't include remakes of Oregon Trail, Lemonade Stand and Carmen Sandiego.

      Do these games have publicly available specs? You mentioned Tetris, which has copious specs on a web site called Hard Drop [harddrop.com], and Pac-Man, whose every AI quirk is likewise documented in English.

      • ... and Pac-Man, whose every AI quirk is likewise documented in English.

        It's documented. [slashdot.org]

      • by dosius (230542)

        The Apple ][+ version of Lemonade Stand is almost straight FPBASIC. Just load and LIST.

        A good chunk of Oregon Trail, even the 1985 version, is also FPBASIC.

        -uso.

        • The Oregon Trail (1985 edition) is also copyrighted. One would need to have one team that reads the original code listings in FPBASIC + asm and writes a spec and another team that reads the spec and writes the new version, so that there's no possible way for code to get copied.

          MECC, Mindscape, The Learning Company, and Broderbund were eventually acquired by Mattel and then split up between Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Ubisoft. The Oregon Trail appears to belong to HMH.

          • You could write a clone that isn't a 100% copy of the original and rename it as to avoid any trademark issues. That is pretty much what the other clones in the KDE software compilation do.

    • I found the iPhone version to be just faintly disappointing. It's lost some of the old-fashioned "righteousness" of the old games. For example, when you went hunting, there was always a little message that said something like, "If people continue hunting in this area, the buffalo will become extinct." Indians were either helpful or oppressed. I swear, there's a scene on the iPhone app where an Indian says, "HOW!" I guess it's just missing some of that Seventies idealism that carried over through all the oth

    • There is also a version of Oregon Trail for Android.
  • This Oregon Trail parody movie trailer [youtube.com] is hilarious.
  • I had a port of this on Commodore 64. Back then I was pretty young and not as good at typing... the "hunting" challenges were actually kind of hard.

    It wasn't always BANG, it was one of a set of words that you had to type in pretty quickly or you'd miss.

    It was an interesting game compared to a lot of the really bad interactive fiction games back then.

  • Perhaps not written by MECC employees, but on the CDC Cyber that ran MECC, you could also find:

    • An early email program and early discussion forum
    • E*M*P*I*R*E, followed by Scepter (of Goth), followed by Milieu (perhaps the earliest multi-user RPG game ever created, written in Pascal)
    • COMBAT, a multi-user space combat game where you fought in 2-D space (no graphics, just text/numbers, written in FORTRAN)
    • XTALK, a multi-user chat program written in -- I think -- COMPASS, with multiple channels
    • WEST -- not sure wha
    • by Creepy (93888)

      yeah - it's a shame that Minnesota first spun off MECC as a private company in budget cuts, and TLC mainly bought them for assets. An ex-employee I knew in the 1990s said TLC was a horrible company to work for compared to MECC, and morale was bad from day 1 after the purchase.

    • by plover (150551) *

      Most of those programs were written by students or other users of the MECC system, not by MECC employees. I wouldn't call them "MECC software".

      I'm pretty sure XTALK was written entirely in COMPASS. WEST was a chat program like XTALK with a Western flair, but it was written in FORTRAN, and as I learned as I was adding stuff to it, the FORTRAN generated code was nowhere near as efficient as the assembler code used in XTALK and MTC. The MULTI subsystem ran in very high priority (near real-time) on the host

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 01, 2011 @11:55AM (#35068188)

    Programmers worked to make educational software for Minnesotans as part of public agency. Some of their games were so good it contributed millions of dollars to the effort.

    The government worried they were stifling the company and so sold it to a venture capitalist for $5,000,000

    Three years later he sold it to a larger firm for hundreds of millions. The larger firm kept the intellectual property and fired all the expensive programmers ending Minnesotans educational experiment. The original programmers got zilch.

    It all seems kind of tragic. Where are the public efforts to make technology help people now instead of just classes in how to use Microsoft office?

    • by plover (150551) *

      It all seems kind of tragic. Where are the public efforts to make technology help people now instead of just classes in how to use Microsoft office?

      Honestly, helping people learn to use Office isn't the worst thing ever. Most people aren't programmers, can't be programmers, and never will be programmers; trying to teach them something like database structures or object oriented principles would be like trying to teach a pig to sing: it wastes your time, and annoys the pig. But teach them something they can use, like how to put together a coherent letter, or how to create a household budget in Excel, and at least some benefit comes out of it.

      What Minn

    • Agreed. And today's technology could be used so much more effectively to teach than it is. MECC was an example of government investment that worked. How come we don't see the private sector doing something similar now? Maybe there is and I just haven't seen it.

      FWIW, I worked at MECC from '90 to '96. I started out writing BASIC and 6502 assembly for Apple II games and ended as a Mac/Win programmer. I left just after SoftKey purchased MECC, and thus avoided the downward spiral to come.

      I really liked

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