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Dysentery and Other Childhood Memories

Living in LA means succumbing to certain temptations. As a graduate student on a limited stipend, I am sadly unable to indulge in high grade cocaine, beautiful companions, and European supercars. However, nothing stops me from taking the bus up to Sunset Boulevard to answer a casting call. A trained actor I am not, but the call was for a documentary about my generation, what it meant to be part of it, how ‘we’ could be defined.
 
This isn’t something I’d thought all that hard about, maybe because I thought it had already been done for me. Aren’t I part of the ‘me’ generation? Or, like, the iPod generation? Or something? Something about our apathy being matched only by our narcissism? Or was it that our rejection of reality? Something that, let’s be forthright here, has been said of all young people since the species began?
 

 
To such notions I can only say: ‘Whatever, man.’

However I may do as every young person has done before me and reject the labels the Man tries to put on me, there is something to be said about common experience. What do I share with others my age? What links us in the way we grew up? The one thing that came to mind, the one thing almost everyone my age could immediately place, were the following words:

‘Do you want to caulk the wagon and float it, or attempt to ford the river?’
As well as:
‘You have reached Independence Rock.’
And, if all else fails:
‘You have died of dysentery.’

I speak, of course, of The Oregon Trail, the touchstone of me and mine, an educational computer game that has left its mark on thousands upon thousands of young psyches, making river fords seem dreadful places of choice, and dysentery a spectral bogey, a nameless dread, lurking in the dark behind the computer screen.

The Oregon Trail is a historical simulation game, in which the player leads a ox-driven wagon along the winding path of the Oregon trail. Starting in Independence, Kansas, the player follows the trail all the way to Oregon city, with five other companions who they must feed and care for. Cities and landmarks serve as safe havens where food and supplies can be bought, including spare parts should the wagon be damaged, and ammunition for when food runs low and the party must hunt. Natural obstacles such as rivers and mountains block progress, and force decisions that can have fatal consequences. A broken wagon axle could leave you stranded on the plains, an unexpected patch of deep water while fording a river could sweep your last supplies right out of your wagon, a rash decision to crack the whip and set your wagon’s pace to ‘grueling’ could drive your oxen to heat stroke or exhaustion. Disease, injury and bad fortune had to be contended with, and every difficulty could spell the end of your journey. For kids in fourth grade, it was heady stuff, this responsibility, and we were avid enthusiasts. And all this on a crummy little Apple II, the kind that could, by early 1990, be found in so many elementary schools across the country.

First programmed in 1971, The Oregon Trail is still being distributed today, most recently ported to the Nintendo Wii and the youngest generation of smart phones. With a lifetime spanning nearly four decades, perhaps it’s not fair to claim this jewel of the edutainment genre for my generation; it’s older than Star Wars and I’m not about to act as if I’m a member of the first wave of die hard SW fans. But Oregon Trail is part of how I, and so many my age, first encountered the remarkable potential of games and gaming. And it is one of the earliest and most successful examples of the educational computer game. Such games, less a genre and more a mode, have had a hand in the success of all video games, and the creation of a shared experience on par with the emergence of television.

Originally, these games had government help. Oregon Trail, for example, was originally distributed by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, or MECC, a state sponsored organization whose role was managing public school computing advances and expenditures. The Trail itself was brought to the company by a student teacher who was recruited from his job teaching math. First accessible in Minnesota, later ported to the Apple II, government aided distribution made it part of the central educational software lineup throughout the late 70’s and early 80’s. MECC’s success in making edutainment was considerable, such that it spun off as a private company. Bought by a venture capitalist for $5 million, what must have seemed like all the money in the world to its formerly state government funded owners, the investment paid off astronomically when said capitalist sold the company for a cool $250 million just a year later. Even adjusting for inflation… damn.

Which is all to say that, despite the advantage of being state backed and state distributed, there was something to MECC’s games, the Trial, the edutainment concept itself, that had clear appeal on the great US market. Something that made consumers willing to pay their hard earned cash for a digital journey to Oregon City.

When I was still young enough to be under my parent’s indisputable authority, I wasn’t allowed to own a video game system. And when I was old enough to assert some degree of independence, they wouldn’t buy one for me, and I was far too stingy to bother. Avid gamer though I may be, I didn’t own a gaming console until my first year of college, when my then-girlfriend- now-spouse purchased a used X-Box for me. But I had, since a second grade, been playing games on my computer. What possible difference could there be, in the eyes of my parents, between console games and PC games? Educational content. Oregon Trail. This was the only sort of game I had access to. Talk about a niche market.

My household was just one of many where edutainment software was a foot in the door for video games. And not without good reason. My childhood saw the proliferation of many, many excellent electronic learning aids. There was Number Muncher to assist with math, Reader Rabbit to help you spell, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? to teach geography and international culture, and then Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? to help with world history. What a wonder, too, that you could get a child feverishly searching through an almanac, looking for details about Papua New Guinea or the capital of Iceland (the spelling of which was made easier by earlier electronic assistance).

Much in the way that Theodore Giesel swept the world with Cat in the Hat and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, educational games changed the approach to learning the subjects that they taught. The most obvious observation is that these games, as games, made learning fun. It’s a cognitive trick, a spoonful of sugar for medicine’s sake – turn the task into a challenge, the challenge into a game. If this is the case, however, educational computer games present nothing particularly new besides their electronic format. This would be enough to account for the increase in computer literacy and naturalization of video game use in my and some previous generations. However, it’s not enough to lift these games to the level of cultural event.

And not all games are cultural events, individually. As with any art form, not every instance of the form realizes the form’s potential. Much as the post-structuralist in me protests, there is a certain value to thinking in terms of a canon, whose members strike enduring notes. Math Blaster lingers only as a name and an impression, while Oregon Trail persists as an experience, a memory cherished and shared. Or, to cite vulgar economics, here is a reason that ‘You have died of dysentery’ now adorns nerd-chic t-shirts, while Math Blaster has inspired no swag to speak of. Educational games were a common experience, yes, but if Oregon Trail was a touchstone, what made it so? What made it different?

The answer is not unrelated to the idea of ‘learning made fun’. History can so easily seem like a dead thing to the young, lying limply on dusty pages. With The Oregon Trail, history came to life or, more accurately, was lived. This is the crucial distinction, and remarkable quality of educational games, of video games in general: the immersive quality they can possess. Rather than learn about the trail, or even play a game that teaches you facts about the trial, The Oregon Trail offers its players that after which it was named: the chance to travel the trail itself. I remember carefully managing my bank roll, stocking up with supplies, spare wagon parts, clothes, victuals. I charted my course, past Fort Kearney, on towards Laramie, then making the choice at South Pass: the long route to Fort Bridger, or brave the ford and head right to Soda Springs? I recall well the warning the game gave as winter approached; I felt myself shivering in my chair, checking my stock of food and ammunition nervously. I knew that, once I left the buffalo-rich plains and entered the Blue Mountains looming in the distance, game would be scarce and warmth scarcer.

On the trail, you suffer the travails, savor the respites, overcome the obstacles, and, should you succeed, revel in your achievement.

Or, should you fail, you die of dysentery.

It’s a joke now, but we should take a psychoanalytic attitude towards it. Humor acts as an anesthesia for the heart; it allows the expression of some repressed content. The Oregon Trail immersed young people in a world of struggle and perseverance and death. A death your character and their companions were not immune to. And should your character die, the game ends. At the time, the experience was genuinely traumatic. Every humorous representation of the game focuses on this aspect, the many ways the trail might kill you, and it may be that laughing at it now is the only way for me to express the trauma I felt.

Much as one might want to shield children from this harsh experience, it is the price for a genuine emotional engagement with a historical event, however simulated. And much as another might consider this claim to trauma ridiculous, the proof is in the pathology – we all remember this game, return to this memory.

And it’s not an unhappy memory, because it was vivid and intense. But the vivid intensity is possible only through immersion in the simulation, and such immersion always risks an encounter with trauma. For all the postmodern complaint that real experience is now inaccessible, that genuine encounters with the real are a priori impossible, those of us who played The Oregon Trail discovered that there was, in committing ourselves to the reality of the game and suspending our disbelief long enough to feel the wind in our hair, the dust in our eyes and the splinters in our backside, a different kind of experience, reaching across time and space, life and circumstance, possible through truly playing a game. Small wonder that video games have seen such success. We weren’t just learning how the pioneers of the 19th century lived, but also how we ourselves might someday live, in and through simulation.

And at least in simulation, die of dysentery though I might, I can always play again. I would consider that quite an improvement.

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Phillip A. Lobo is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. His previous reviews for Open Letters were on Grand Theft Auto IV, BioShock, video game movies, Christie Golden’s World of Warcraft novel Arthas, Massive Multiplayer Online Gaming, The Sims franchise, video game music, Halo 3: Orbital Drop Shock Trooper, Tropico 3, Assassin’s Creed II, and adventure games.