The Oregon Trail game was invented in 1971 by Bill Heinemann, Paul Dillenberger, and myself when we were seniors at Carleton College (MN) training to be teachers. I wanted a game to help me teach about the Westward Movement in the mid-1800s. My partner math teachers knew some programming. We had access to a mainframe computer that did all its communicating via printed text. The result was the first version of what became the most popular educational computer game of the 1980s and 90s. I brought the game to the Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation (MECC) when I started work there in 1974. When personal computers like the Apple II hit the market a few years later, a MECC team converted the game to a version with graphics, animation, pioneer tunes, and some memorable quotes. A classic was born.

Thousands of students who played Oregon Trail back then continue to enjoy fond memories of the game as evidenced by its appearance on TV and radio programs, T-shirts, online forums, and in everyday conversation. I am here to answer your questions about how the game was invented, what the original version was like, what computing was like at the dawn of its use in schools, and my experiences with OT fans.

I am also interested to hear your stories of how you first encountered the game, what you learned from it, and how it affected you. You might also share these stories with the Strong Museum of Play (Rochester, NY), home of the World Video Game Hall of Fame, which will soon select games to be enshrined in 2016:

Forty-five years ago I was looking for a way to enliven the teaching of history. Thanks to the many people who have let us know we were on the right trail!

My proof photo: The three inventors in 1995 (Don, Bill, Paul): Teletypes Ho!

EDIT: CLOSING REMARKS I stayed on for 2.5 hours - thanks so much to all of you who wrote expressing your memories of the game and asking questions. For all those I couldn't get to, you might find this article from a few years ago interesting, telling the story of how OT came to be:

And check above for the Hall of Fame link - we need an educational game to go in!

What did I learn about life from Oregon Trail? Plan ahead Be patient If you persevere, you'll find your green valley. Even if the water's deep, sometimes you just have to caulk your wagon and head out from shore. -Don-

Comments: 2053 • Responses: 64  • Date: 

letdogsvote3753 karma

Have you personally ever had dysentery?

donroregontrail2425 karma

No, thank goodness.

cashcow11608 karma

Could you also invent a method of transporting 853 pounds of meat back to my wagon?

donroregontrail1642 karma

How about a fridge with a 2,000 mile extension cord?

OmahaVike1543 karma


Thank you for setting my life's course. In the mid/late 70's, my mom used to lug this huge 200 lb. teletype unit with phone coupler over school breaks, from Jefferson Elementary all the way out to Mound.

Was the first "video" game I've ever played (can we call it that since there were no monitors?!?). I wound up with a BS and MS in CompSci and have a great career as a software dev.

Just another human whose life you have had great influence, and I really needed to thank you for this.

donroregontrail974 karma

Thanks very much. Is that Mound, Minnesota? (I used to live in the Twin Cities.) And yes, those teletypes were darned heavy!

Sunderpool1341 karma

Any chance at releasing the original game on Android?

donroregontrail1527 karma

The rights to Oregon Trail currently belong to a publisher, who could and did create a smart phone version of the game. Definitely for iOS and I thought for Android. However, these versions vary from the original OT and the subsequent MECC versions. They play more like an arcade game. I suspect that a historical model is not involved.

gnujack984 karma

Do you have a favorite parody of your game?

donroregontrail2225 karma

I am a fan of Organ Trail and got to meet the creators for dinner in Chicago.

almosthere0327751 karma

"Gamification" is a popular topic of research right now for its potential impact on education and training programs. Do you still feel like history is a good candidate for acquiring knowledge through simulation/games?

donroregontrail928 karma

Absolutely. It gives people a chance to "feel" history by participating. It provides a way to "test" the results of alternative historical outcomes. But history is also enlivened by stories, so you need to read it as well.

Cwell280716 karma

How does it feel to be the creator of such an impactful and legendary game?

I first encountered the game when I spent the night at a friends house in elementary school. We stayed up all night, just the five of us, and took turns getting diseases, hunting, dying, and laughing the entire night away.

The game completely enthralled us youngsters, and I was hooked from that day forward. I bought myself a copy and played the crap out of it. It left a lasting effect on me, and I just wanted to say thank you for having the vision and dedication to make such a great game. For real, thank you. You sir and your team are legends in my now much older eyes.

donroregontrail646 karma

You are most welcome. Though fate decreed that we would invent OT before the era of personal computer software royalties, OT has given me visibility and the chance to communicate with many people interested in how the game came to be. For example, I have given presentations at MIT and Carnegie-Mellon.

Cwell280113 karma

That's awesome you get to reach out and share your experiences in such prestigious institutions such as those. You've certainly inspired an entire generation with your imagination and execution. Even though its a shame you didn't get a chance to benefit from software royalties when you created this game, I'm sure you can't put a price on the impact and reception your game has gotten.

I appreciate the reply and hopefully I can find a video somewhere on Youtube or another site so I can view one of these presentations. It's fascinating to see what the process was like creating a game like this. It's not like there was a blueprint on how to go about making games like this at the time you guys were developing this game. You and your team were true pioneers, pun intended. Thanks again.

donroregontrail161 karma

Cwell: Search on Don Rawitsch Dust or Magic and find a YouTube clip from the 2011 Dust or Magic conference. It's a 1-hour presentation I gave on the history of OT.

mattreyu683 karma

Is there anything you wanted to include in the game but had to cut due to memory limitations?

donroregontrail1344 karma

Not due to memory (well, maybe my own). But it would have been interesting to add a Native American viewpoint, perhaps a character who watches the wagons come into that territory.

decentlyconfused568 karma

What is the strangest bug/error you encountered while making the game?

donroregontrail1257 karma

Once some kids from Alaska wrote MECC claiming to have a fool proof method for winning. They entered a negative number for food spending which the program subtracted from their money, which actually added to their money. They got rich. We quickly added an input check to all money questions to reject negative numbers!

DNAtaurine555 karma

Would you ever recommend fording the river under any circumstance?

edit: spelling

donroregontrail810 karma

Fording the river usually works if the water is shallow (say 2-3 feet). River depth is displayed for the player in the personal computer version of the game.

Chengweiyingji402 karma

What 5 names do you use at the start?

donroregontrail991 karma

I try to use names that won't make me sad if they die on the trip.

samwisesunbear311 karma

Am I correct that the correct way round play is to start as a banker (for more money), buy 99 boxes of bullets, (so you don't run out) and stop every 30 seconds to kill everything that moves? Because that's what I always did.

donroregontrail293 karma

Keeping up a good food stock is important to survival. The three roles you can play were added so that a beginner has a better chance to survive (as a banker), but a seasoned pioneer can give him/herself a tougher challenge as a farmer.

justscottaustin278 karma

How are you not dead from dysentery?

donroregontrail413 karma

As any student from the 80s will tell you, it's all about eating well.


Anyone with a remotely modern computer can download an old version of Oregon Trail (and hundreds of other games) and play them via DOSBox (a DOS emulator). The sites offering the games for download consider the games abandonware, games that may as well be given away for free because the games are no longer maintained and because they are so old that they really can't keep up with modern gaming.

How do you feel about Oregon Trail being available as abandonware?

donroregontrail474 karma

It's inevitable given the pace of change in technology. I am pleased that software from a few decades ago (including OT) can still be made available via this method.

defjamblaster240 karma

do you guys still have those matching jean jackets? i can't handle the 90s awesomeness!

donroregontrail220 karma

Unfortunately, I have "outgrown" my jacket. But the MECC people did a super job in having them made!

funkseoulbrotha239 karma

Any easter eggs in the original Oregon Trail?

donroregontrail483 karma

Not in the way we think of it today. However, sometimes you might encounter a tombstone epitaph from a previous player.

donroregontrail221 karma

Signing off now. See intro box at top of thread for more information. Thanks pardners! -Don-

T-town04216 karma

Have you ever traveled any part of the Oregon Trail?

donroregontrail329 karma

Unfortunately, no. It's on my bucket list. I believe there a book recently published about 2 guys who made the trip in a wagon.

roothyman2198 karma

What's your favorite game?

Oh, and I also want to say thank you for making such a legendary game.

donroregontrail247 karma

Electronic: PacMan Box: Acquire

PissLikeaRacehorse186 karma

Do you have any regrets that your game gave me a B in typing class because I was trying to save that god damn family from disease and trying to ford your damn rivers? I mean I was doing the righteous thing, but no, shit kept coming up, and what the hell is a wagon tongue? Seriously though, awesome game. Thanks for the memories.

donroregontrail239 karma

Sorry for the B, man. I took typing in high school and still use the hunt and peck methodology.

Yserbius168 karma

  • What are your opinions on the later versions of the game?
  • How much input did you have over the various re-incarnations (Amazon Trail, Oregon Trail II, etc.) did you have over the years?
  • Do you still program?
  • If so, do you occasionally nostalgically code for the Apple ][e or punchcards?

My personal story, if you'll indulge me for a bit. As a kid I was a little socially awkward, had only two or three friends, and hated sports. One summer in day camp (circa 1989 I want to say) my counselor had a hard time getting through to me and finding something I liked to do. Once a week we would have computers in a school lab of some old Apple ][s. My counselor and I would spend most of the time playing Oregon Trail and that was how we bonding. A year or so later, my parents got us the DOS version for our IBM 286. My brother and I, along with two other brothers we were friends with, would spend almost every Sunday playing at least one game together.

Thank you.

donroregontrail349 karma

Glad that OT helped you build your friendships. I was not very involved in the later versions (I was more involved in teacher training). For market reasons, it was necessary to upgrade each subsequent version of the game. I have always thought that ideally you should be able to play the whole game in 45 minutes (the length of a schools class period).


Did you ever profit noticeably from the game's sales?

donroregontrail425 karma

Actually, no except that it led me to great jobs in the ed tech industry. When I brought OT to MECC, we were still 5 years away from the notion that there would be a consumer software market. Who knew that personal computers would emerge? We were more interested in sharing OT with other teachers and students. In another era, I might have owned an island by now!

funkseoulbrotha163 karma

Besides the banker, there is no way of beating Oregon Trail, right? Being a farmer sucks.

donroregontrail401 karma

Come on now, farmers can get to Oregon too. But, you have to have a little more skill to solve problems without throwing money at them.

WithLiveIron123 karma

Thank you so much for creating one of the most influential video games (or, frankly, pieces of media) in my entire life.

How important do you think the concept of play is in education?

donroregontrail140 karma

Play is critical, especially for younger kids. But there are still ways of making learning fascinating for older kids. It doesn't come from constantly reading textbooks.

jdb888114 karma

Were you concerned that most kids just wanted to hunt or shoot bandits in the 80s version and ignored any bit of history you tried to impart?

donroregontrail217 karma

We realized that shooting would have that "arcade" popularity, but actually if all you do is hunt, you are likely to waste time and hit the Rockies during winter. Not the best strategy. It's hard to ignore history in OT: the forts, what things cost, the weather, the difficulty of the trip for the pioneers.

shitterplug90 karma

My history teacher in high school claimed he was related to one of you, and got his hands on one of the first couple copies. I can't remember his first name, but his last name is Hastings. Was he full of shit?

donroregontrail99 karma

Name doesn't ring a bell.

yooohooo886 karma

What will you put on your tombstone?

donroregontrail253 karma

He helped kids learn

holyfruits82 karma

Did you ever figure out where the popularly pirated "here lies andy, peperony and chease" copy originated from?

donroregontrail37 karma

Sorry, no I don't know.

Kingkocks80 karma

Did you have to do a lot of research about the oregon trail when making the game?

donroregontrail156 karma

There wasn't time during the two weeks when we originally invented the game. When I brought the game to MECC, I researched a lot, including reading diaries from real settlers on the Trail. I used this info to adjust the probabilities in the game that certain evnts would happen.

suaveitguy73 karma

What do you consider the big watershed breakthroughs in video game history?

donroregontrail174 karma

Sorry, I haven't kept up with gaming over the years. But I am amazed that a game like Minecraft can be so powerful that teachers have taken to write curriculum plans for it. Thanks for a great question.

aisasami61 karma

I loooooved Oregon Trail when I played as a kid in the 90s. It was one of my favorite computer games at school because it was so challenging, educational, and fun. I think I made it to end when K was a kid. However, when I replayed it last year, I kept dying due to diseases at the midway point. :(

Are you more of a classic/retro OT fan or new age OT fan? How has technological developments over the years have changed the game?

donroregontrail117 karma

The later versions of the laptop game are quite impressive, with lots of new historical stuff added. What I have always liked about our original version is that without all the media, you can focus on the simulation model, the cause and effect. I'm not a fan of the smart phone versions of the past 1-2 years, which have made OT an arcade game.

misscal59 karma

I remember back in school playing this game and how difficult it was; because we were like 2nd graders with little concept of how grueling the journey of the Oregon Trail actually was. I do remember the trend it was to name everyone after friends and seeing who would not be killed off. Kind of like survival of the fittest..? But thank you for contributing to my/our childhood!

Also when hunting there was a certain weight one could carry back, why couldn't we just make multiple trips to and fro?

donroregontrail133 karma

Actually, the concept represented there is supposed to be that the meal will spoil, not that it's too heavy. Perhaps the wording is unclear.

Frajer51 karma

did you want Oregon Trail to be primarily educational or fun ?

donroregontrail77 karma

I believe that education is enhanced when you are having fun while learning. Hence the grow popularity of games in the classroom today. Many people have told me the computer activity they learned the most from in school was playing OT.

swuboo51 karma

In hindsight, it seems fairly evident that the game was pirated heavily—many players remember one particular tombstone reading, "here lies andy: peperony and chease," which was propagated by pirated copies of the game, which were apparently endemic in schools nationwide.

Was that evident at the time? Did MECC see it as a problem, or was the widespread adoption of their educational game enough for them, even without universal remuneration?

donroregontrail52 karma

The epitaphs were entered by the player, so I'm not sure that the one above wasn't written by a student needing help with spelling. In any case, MECC attacked the piracy issue by allowing schools to purchase the annual right to make copies of a title for a flat fee using a MECC supplied copy utility. Thousands of schools purchased licenses for all the MECC titles in a given year. Thus, there was no need for them to do it illegally.

cutemusclehead49 karma


  • What's your favorite food?

  • What's your favorite book?

  • What's your favorite quote? (books, movie, t.v. show)

Thanks for the AMA!!! Have a good day:-)

donroregontrail89 karma

Food: Bison Burgers Quote: That's gonna leave a mark. from Tommy Boy

Anaxagoras2375 karma

The book must have died of dysentery on the way West :(

donroregontrail100 karma

OK, I am a history buff. For a fascinating read try "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" by Richard Rhodes.

jrvw00137 karma

How many times have you played the game?

donroregontrail64 karma

Hundreds, especially when testing fixes and new versions.

Immakai25 karma

We had Oregon Trail on our school computers, back in 1996. Back then the computer teachers didnt teach much computers or typing, we mostly played games. Now my mom is teaching computers at my old elementary school. Just last week she told me that she's letting the kids play Oregon Trail every once in a while. They name the characters after classmates and then fake cry over their deaths. The kids love it.

How does it feel that after so long, kids still are playing and enjoying a game you made more than 40 years ago?

donroregontrail34 karma

Stories like that one are my reward for co-inventing the game.

suaveitguy23 karma

In a practical sense, how did you design story lines and keep track of all the potential options branching off?

donroregontrail45 karma

We didn't design story lines, but we created a master chart of all the possible paths through a round in the game. It creates so many combinations that it's part of the OT allure. You never get the same game twice!

dominushh22 karma

Which aspects of the development of OT were you most involved with? What do you wish would have been done differently? And most importantly have you ever beaten the game?

donroregontrail68 karma

My role in the original version was to get the history right, both when we invented it and later when there was time to do more research. Yes, I have made it to Oregon many times. Interestingly, I found in training teachers that when they first try the game about half die along the way. This approximates the real 50% mortality rate of the first settlers.

suaveitguy22 karma

How did the graphic design process work? Did artists create different concepts etc.. like today, or was it a case of it being so difficult to create graphics you just created what you could?

donroregontrail26 karma

Probably a simpler process back then. One graphic designer was assigned to create the images. But that person probably started with sketches and got feedback from other team members.

suaveitguy22 karma

What would you have considered ambitious for including in a video game back in the day? Any feature that was too hard to include that seems like a piece of cake today?

donroregontrail49 karma

Way back in the day it was a pipe dream to have real people talk to you along the journey. In 1995, MECC released OTII, which included vignettes of people dressed as pioneers offering you advice.

-DeoxyRNA-20 karma

Have you seen "Tales of Illyria"? I am playing it now and it reminds me of the good 'ol Oregon Trail days with a fantasy twist.

donroregontrail18 karma

Have not seen it. Thanks for the tip.

ThotCity19 karma

I am a Social Studies teacher and was wondering if you could provide some ways of how to integrate the Oregon Trail game into the a unit?

donroregontrail43 karma

Oh my. We need an hour on the phone! Start with this. OT can be the intro for a unit of study that grabs kids' attention. Or OT can be the heart of the unit leading to the information you want kids to learn. Or OT can be the assessment for a unit. You study the pioneer experience and then the test is to play the game and see how far you get!

AverageTollTroll10 karma

Don! Thank you for the good memories. Do you have any statistics of how many miles were traveled or how many people got bitten by snakes? Also have you seen the revenant, I feel like he would have been great to hang with on the trail, besides all the screaming....

donroregontrail31 karma

Speaking of The Revenant, have you seen this trailer?

LostHobo14310 karma

What was your motivation for building The Oregon Trail in the first place?

donroregontrail20 karma

As a student teacher, I had to teach a unit on the Westward Movement that wouldn't bore the students to sleep.

donroregontrail38 karma

I already have a movie idea. Two kids are playing OT and suddenly get sucked into the computer and find themselves in a wagon train. Will they ever get home?

therdewo4 karma

As an Oregonian who was the right age to play the original OT, thanks for putting us on the map.

Now for a question, how many pounds of bison can you carry?

donroregontrail16 karma

The game says 200 lbs. Personally, I can only carry 30 lbs.

g2f1g6n14 karma

how has game dev changed for you?

donroregontrail10 karma

My work actually shifted away from development after OT. Today I am working for a start-up company on STEM related investigations for kids.

suaveitguy4 karma

Were there OT knock-offs that appeared?

donroregontrail6 karma

Yes, I have seen announcements about other Western Movement software games. I don't think they got much exposure.

CraigMack782 karma

I remember this game being an instant hit and being very addicted to it. Thank you for creating such a staple when I was a kid. When someone mentions OT it's instant nostalgia.

Do you ever think about creating a newer updated version ?

donroregontrail6 karma

After I left MECC, they created several updated versions, especially Oregon Trail II in 1995.

darkenedgy2 karma

If you were making the game today, what technological advance would you find most useful for improving the experience (feel free to define that in any way you see fit)?

I remember playing this on 5 1/4" floppies in school. Good times.

donroregontrail5 karma

I'm waiting for the virtual reality glasses version!

Teslablade2 karma

What is your opinion on the parody game Organ Trail?

donroregontrail3 karma

I'm an Organ Trail fan and had the honor of dining with the creators several years ago. Their success is laudable.

Scorp1on2 karma

Oregon Trail may have been the first video game I ever played (I can't be sure, I also have fond memories of Jetpack from around the same time), and it was definitely one of the influences of turning me towards my current love of all things video game. My questions for you are:
1) Were you big into games when you made Oregon Trail (not necessarily video games, but board games, role playing games, etc..?) or was this just a novel idea for something you wanted to try
2) How big into playing video games did you get? Are you a casual gamer? Have you given up games by now? Did you never really get into them? Or is it a big part of your life?

donroregontrail3 karma

I had never experienced programming when we invented the game. It was all new to me. As it was 1971, there were no personal computers or gaming. I became a casual gamer after that but my work involved developing software for schools.

3dpenguin2 karma

Did you guys intentionally make the game so damned difficult so that it seemed like everything was a completely random hodgepodge of events?

I know the Oregon Trail was a nasty bit of travel but the game seemed like it was out to kill the player.

donroregontrail6 karma

There was some randomness in the events, but all within the probabilities I found in the real pioneer diaries. As with many games, the more you play, the more you learn about strategy, the better your odds of succeeding. This simulates the pioneer experience of more travelers dying during the early migration than later when the survivors got word back east on how to prepare for the journey.

Mr_Cheese_Cat2 karma

Hello, I encountered the Oregon trail by a school history project and it helped me learn about the time period. The game taught me how scarce resources were and how many decisions these people went through while trekking across the land. Why pick the western movement over many of the other historical journeys? Thank you for the beautiful classic!

donroregontrail4 karma

Yes, the model could be possibly applied to other journeys. But there's something about the Old West as an era that interests kids.

Dimitri_Petrenko1 karma

If you could change or edit the game in any way now? would you?

donroregontrail2 karma

I would create a larger role for the Native American experience with the Westward migration.

cybercuzco1 karma

Have you ever had dysentery?

donroregontrail3 karma

No. The flu is bad enough for me.