Sunday, February 6, 2011

How the West Was Fun

It's been 40 years since The Oregon Trail was first created as a board game by a group of schoolteachers from Minnesota (a state which, interestingly enough, was not actually part of the Oregon Trail). I would hazard a guess that more people have played some iteration of the educational PC game than actually traveled the real Oregon Trail. The simplistic game's goal is to give its players a feel of what life might have been like if they were one of the thousands of pioneers to take the 2,000-mile land route from Independence, Missouri to the Oregon Territory's Willamette Valley. Basically: it was really hard and you'd probably die. Despite the game's somewhat politically-incorrect theme (you don't really hear the term "Manifest Destiny" thrown around nowadays as much as you used to, what with all the Native Americans and separation of church and state and whatnot), the game has become part of pop culture- so much so that its official website keeps track of references and remakes to it that have popped up online. And it is this nostalgia and name recognition that seems to be the impetus for the game being revived on Facebook, combining all the fun with social networking with all the fun of your friends dying of dysentery.

As VH1's Best Week Ever pointed out, The Oregon Trail is on the surface a very dull game. However, it seems over the years that MECC- now The Learning Company- has realized this and added a bit to the proceedings. I grew up playing a lot of Oregon Trail II, which added a number of alternate trails and detours, such as the Mormon trek to Utah and the California Gold Rush, to the proceedings. (My friend and I loved the jokes involving oxen and famous French people in the game's credits, and are apparently the only two people on earth who remember them.) Recently, an iPhone app was released based on the game which added a number of entertaining minigames as well as some humor in the form of goofy animations and conversations between the pioneer and his family (the developers must have realized that the theme of the game is somewhat un-PC, and just decided to run with that to amusing effect by having the pioneer frequently insult or just downright ignore his wife's frequent complaints).

Having spent a lot of time with the Facebook iteration (I'll admit it- it's addictive), I'm very impressed with the way it keeps the Oregon Trail theme and charm (if you can call it that) but also adding some social networking features as well as some other features to keep it from getting dull. This includes alternate routes you can take, various items you can buy to improve your skill, and minigames. This includes the traditional hunting minigame, which is rather fun (as it always has been) and makes you think a bit, too. At least, it makes me think. With the gun you start out with, you can down a bear in two shots and a buffalo in three. Of course, bears are faster and more dangerous than buffalo. So if you have both coming at you, what do you do? Shoot the bear, of course- same amount of food in less shots. Another minigame involves repairing your wagon when it breaks down. I call this game "Pioneer Tetris" because it is pretty much like a game of Tetris- you have unusually-shaped wood pieces you have to patch over the holes, the goal trying to get as few overlapping pieces as possible- preferably none, which is of course easier said than done.

The other thing I'm quite impressed with is the social networking factor. This includes the fact that you can have your friends "join" you on the trip. Let's admit it, it was always fun to put your friends in as travel companions, whether for "realism" or because you were amused when they broke they leg or got dysentery. This tradition continues, and you can even post their unfortunate circumstances on your Facebook page to rub it in their faces. But what I'm most impressed with is that, unlike most Facebook games, premium items to give you a leg up which cost real-world money are included, but aren't really required. As The Learning Company themselves put it, "you can definitely make it to Oregon on your own steam! We wanted to make sure everyone could enjoy the Trail." And really, isn't this what makes it more fun? It certainly does for me- besides, what's more pioneer-like than trying to raise money on your own from the gold you find on the side of the road and saving for that upgrade rather than spending real-world cash on it?

There's a little bit of an educational factor as well, of course- various landmarks are described in detail, and real-world personalities show up in saloons. I like that those personalities aren't really described 100%- since I know the story behind Phineas Gage, for example, it's amusing to see him and hear him complain about his headache, but I also like the fact that they just don't go out and say what he's famous for, encouraging someone who doesn't know to look it up and learn something. But even though The Oregon Trail is ostensibly an educational game, its appeal has always been both something more and something less than that. Blue Fang Software and The Learning Company have done a good job in bringing it to the Facebook age, assuring that many will continue to die of dysentery for a long time. And in the world of the Oregon Trail, dying of dysentery is something you can actually be proud of.

THE OREGON TRAIL® ©2011 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. No ownership intended or implied.

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