‘It’s a White Thing’: ‘The Oregon Trail’ Game Doesn’t Tell Complete History
Millions of Americans remember dying of dysentery as they played The Oregon Trail, one of the most popular educational computer games of all time and perhaps the most iconic history game ever.
The game, designed in 1971 to encourage students to learn about 19th century history, multiplied into at least 10 iterations over 45 years and sold an estimated 65 million copies worldwide. In 2016, TIME ranked the game ninth on its list of 50 Best Video Games of All Time; the same year, The Oregon Trail was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame.
But developers still field questions about the game’s stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans. During a recent gaming conference, Don Rawitsch, one of three aspiring teachers who developed The Oregon Trail, said he has dreams of reimagining the game with a Native American perspective.
“If I were to create something like Oregon Trail today, I would create the Native American version,” he said during a panel discussion at the Game Developers Conference in March. “What would it be like on the other side of the wall, so to speak?”
Rawitsch’s comments came as critics continue to blast the game’s one-sided views of history and stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans. The Oregon Trail poses as a history-rich, educational game, but it is full of inaccuracies and racial biases, said Bill Bigelow, curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools and a long-time critic of the game.
“It’s a white thing,” Bigelow told ICMN. “Even though the game hides its racial bias, you can’t choose your race. If you play the game, you are white, so there’s all kinds of ways it teaches contempt for Native Americans.”
Heralded as an interactive, student-centered game, The Oregon Trail transforms players into members of families and wagon trains as they cross the plains during the 1840s, facing a vast array of questions along the way: what kind of wagon to take; what supplies to buy; how fast to travel; whether to use horses, oxen or mules; and whether to interact with people encountered along the trail. The objective is to travel safely from Independence, Missouri, to the Oregon Territory, overcoming obstacles and achieving “a new life in the new territories.”
The game now is available on iPhone, Wii, iOS and Android, and it even enjoyed a short stint on Facebook. It has spawned a variety of themed merchandise, including mugs, decals and the ever-popular “You Have Died of Dysentery” T-shirt.
“Dying of illness was part of the game,” Rawitsch told ICMN. “Just about everyone who has played the game has experienced dysentery.”
Rawitsch, at the time a college senior in Minneapolis, helped design the first version of the legendary game in just two weeks. In 1974, as computers gained popularity in classrooms, the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium hired Rawitsch, who brought the game with him.
The Oregon Trail was soon available to all Minnesota schools, and gained popularity across the country in the following two decades when it was installed on Apple II computers before they were delivered to schools. The second version, which included simple images, also came with more robust historical facts, Rawitsch said.
“One of the things I did was go to the library and find books published that contained the actual text of diaries from people who made this journey,” he said. “I came away with specific data: the geography of the trail, what things cost in the 1840s and the probability that certain things would happen.”
Because Rawitsch taught in a classroom with a high Native American population, he was particularly mindful of his portrayal of indigenous people. One of his top priorities, he said, was making sure the fictional narrative was a “reasonable representation.”
“The stereotype of the day always showed Indians attacking pioneer trains,” he said. “I tried to make sure that the Indians more often helped the pioneers determine from local plant life what was edible, where the trails headed and knowledge of farming. From time to time, they might have encountered Indians not happy about them traveling to the West—in a way, it was like trespassing—but the point is that a lot of the people who caused trouble for pioneers were other white folks.”
During the 1990s, the third version of the game, Oregon Trail II, was released, boasting more historical research and enhanced with video clips of actors who answer players’ questions. The most recent versions, distributed by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and available for iPhones and Tablets, resemble arcade games.
But the iconic game—despite its many adaptations and accolades—still fails to accurately portray the devastating effects Westward Expansion had on indigenous people. Although the game has become more sophisticated and research-heavy, critics still call it biased and misleading.
“Part of why the game is dangerous is because you can pretend you’re learning history and teachers endorse it,” said Katrine Barber, associate professor of history at Portland State University. “It perpetuates fake history and it gets people when they’re really young and impressionable. My students come into my college history classes with warm and fuzzy feelings about the Oregon Trail.”
The game fails to address the motivations of whites as they moved onto other people’s lands, Barber said. Oregon Trail travelers had “a set of beliefs about indigenous people and political practices to strip those folks of their land.”
The Oregon Trail also misrepresents the “incredible monotony” of history, she said. “It’s an amazing feat to bring your family across the trail like that and create new communities in new places, but the game overlooks the complexities of history. Monotony is a really hard aspect to successfully get into entertainment.”
In 1997, Bigelow condemned the game’s simplified portrayal of Indians and its “insensitivity to Indian cultures.” For example, the guidebook recommends players avoid contact with indigenous people who had developed “distrust and dislike” for emigrants—likely because settlers spread devastating diseases.
Little has changed in the newer versions of the game. The iPhone game, The Oregon Trail: American Settler, includes cartoonish Indians dressed in war bonnets and wielding tomahawks.
Criticizing the game’s “selfish and goal-driven” ideology, Bigelow said players still are “oblivious to the mayhem and misery” caused by their westward trek.
“So much of the premise of The Oregon Trail is individualistic,” he told ICMN. “It’s about looking out for yourself and your family and advancing your own interests.”
Bigelow, who taught history for decades, acknowledges the classroom merits of The Oregon Trail as a multidisciplinary, choice-based game, but the lasting damage comes in the choices students are notmaking, he said. While students can choose how quickly to travel, when to hunt and whether to talk to Indians along the trail, they are never offered the more fundamental choices that frame the game.
In a simulated, non-violent environment, players make choices that help them survive, Bigelow said. People get sick; sometimes they die; every player experiences hardships, but they press on.
“There’s nothing in the game that alerts you to the impact your choices are having on indigenous people,” he said. “The impact is really hidden, so it feels like an individual journey and you’re just trying to survive. But kids are not learning about the problematic attitudes about race and culture. They’re not learning that settlers behaved poorly. It’s profoundly misleading.”
Bobbie Conner, director of the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, battles these distortions in history every day. Established in 1998, the institute is a museum and interpretative center for the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes located on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in eastern Oregon. It is the only Native American museum along the Oregon Trail.
“Most of what is written about the Oregon Trail is about the triumph of the United States,” said Conner, who is Umatilla. “Americans like adventure stories and heroes, so we make explorers iconic, we put them on pedestals, and we romanticize Indians. These stereotypes get reinforced when we make heroes out of the wagon masters and the people who claimed the land.”
These simplified versions of history ignore existing inhabitants or portray the two groups as the victors and the vanquished, Conner said. The result is generations of students who learn only part of the story.
“They’re learning about the settling of the West, but not the way the U.S. government steamrolled lots of people to accomplish its goals,” she said. “It’s interesting to me how people can take something like the Oregon Trail and characterize it so easily and readily into something so simplified, because it’s not simple at all.”
To Conner, The Oregon Trail game is part of the “poor, weak or lame history” taught in schools. The real history of the Oregon Trail is much more complex and nuanced, she said.
“The Oregon Trail is a like a B-Western movie,” she said. “We can’t look at it for content or accuracy.”
Most of the early relationships between settlers and Indians were positive, Conner said. Umatilla traded with settlers and often assisted them along the trail.
Oral history reveals that Umatilla grandmothers helped feed settlers and took care of women and children while the men went for supplies. One story even tells of a Umatilla woman who made settlers’ children moccasins because their shoes had worn out, Conner said.
“All the way into the early 1840s, the engagements were not ridden with conflict,” she said. “The conflicts began when the diseases started to spread: measles, small pox, typhus and dysentery caused the death of whole villages. When you see Cayuse men killing settlers to stop the migration, they’re really trying to stop the death and dying.”
Conner, who calls the settling of the West the “unsettling,” said the Oregon Trail brought a trickle of settlers, then a flow. They carved roads with their wagons, polluted water holes and hunted out the game along the trail.
“There were plenty of consequences of the Oregon Trail,” she said. “So many people were dying for so many reasons. That gets lost when you learn a shallow version of history.”
Nearly 50 years after Rawitsch helped design the game that changed the way Americans learn history, he acknowledges its strengths and weaknesses and biases.
“History is always complex,” he said. “No one game could cover all the aspects of the westward migration. I encouraged teachers to use The Oregon Trail as a springboard to other resources, raising other points of view. I always hoped that The Oregon Trail was getting students to ask questions and learn more.”
ICMN reached out to Houghton Mifflin and Gameloft, who designed the most recent iPhone version of the game. Houghton Mifflin declined to comment, and Gameloft has yet to send a promised response.