The Oregon Trail Game: Education Classic With Dysentery

The Oregon Trail game from 1985.

Here’s a brutal Atari and home computer educational series utterly obsessed with disease. Hurray!

The Oregon Trail Video Game

For those unaware, the Oregon Trail is a 2,170 mile east-west emigrant trail in the USA. In the 19th century (particularly from 1846-1869), all manner of Americans went about the trek to try and start a better life.

Along the way, many camped alongside now famous landmarks such as the Independence Rock.

Whilst resting overnight, emigrants scrawled their initials into what’s become a treasured US tourist attraction. Quite a lot of these inscriptions are visible to this day!

Unfortunately, a lot of folks succumbed to horrible diseases whilst making their trek. Which is, of course, a wonderful topic a video game for kids should cover.

So, enter The Oregon Trail—an educational video game. The first outing in this series was in 1971 as a text-based video game on the HP 2100. Over the coming years it shifted to the CDC Cyber 70 and then the Apple II.

We’re focussing on the 1985 version as it features graphics and some pretty darkly hilarious messages for the player. Bearing in mind many young kids were playing the game, it seems a bit wildly appropriate.

But most folks from the 1980s, all grown up now, instead remember the title fondly due to its macabre approach.

We’re not sure if that was intentional or not (more on this further below). The now defunct MECC (Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium) handled the project.

They adapted it from the 1971 original by Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger.

The general idea is to make the trip across the Oregon Trail—a perilous trek fraught with bandits, disease, starvation, and wheels falling off wagons.

As the player, you have to manage your wagon and try to keep everyone alive.

Now, these games were wildly successful in America. The Wild West in general is big business over there.

More recently, titles like Red Dead Redemption II used the 19th century for a dramatic open world title.

And in it, there are also nods to the plentiful bouts of disease. Especially cholera. However, The Oregon Trail is special. It has dysentery.

Dysentery High Score

You have died of dysentery.

The Oregon Trail is the digital form of Roy Porter’s Blood & Guts: A Brief History of Medicine (2002).

The list of issues you can suddenly die from include:

  • Snakebite
  • Measles
  • Exhaustion
  • Dysentery (of course)
  • Accidental gunshot
  • Cholera
  • Typhoid
  • Drowning

All of which the game bandies about like it’s a casual thing, this death business.

The Oregon Trail is notorious/legendary now thanks to the brutally frank messages it had in store for players. Many a child in the 1980s was merrily informed, “Betty has cholera.”

And then there’s the legendary line, “You have died of dysentery.”

Taking on an I AM ERROR. level of mysticism, you can get t-shirts with the above on to pay homage to your favourite educational game. Hurray!

Well, as for us, we’re British, dammit. This one didn’t really stray into our paths. We do remember an educational game involving a caterpillar that amazed us.

Another one had a rocketship in it. My word! The 1980s don’t get any better than that. Unless, of course, you get dysentery.


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