Do you remember the game The Oregon Trail? Did it spark something in you that had you playing it for days on end?

Something I share with a lot of nineties kids is the nostalgia for a game that made learning about a relatively brief historical phenomenon fun. On an old Macintosh computer my friends and I would load up our wagons (did anyone pick anything other than conestoga*?), embark on a journey that followed a unique path while stocking up on goods and fording rivers along the way, inevitably losing family members in a variety of dark – but historically accurate – ways.

I recently had the chance to watch a master of The Oregon Trail computer game, my friend and frequent collaborator, Jim Stewart Allen. Jim, a stand-up comedian and educator, has been playing all of the versions of The Oregon Trail since he was a kid and now puts on shows in the Seattle area where you can come and watch him play. He’ll even involve members of the audience in the game! His most recent project is to fund a documentary on The Oregon Trail games, which I highly encourage my viewers to contribute to, here.

The Oregon Trail Game Documentary on Go Fund Me: https://www.gofundme.com/oregon-trail-documentary

Sitting with Jim as he led me through the ins and outs of the simulation, I was immediately engrossed in how the game made history fun. And it got me thinking… why aren’t there other historical games like Oregon Trail in classrooms now? Going even further, why aren’t there more immersive 3D video game experiences available that cover every important aspect of the curriculum – from history to STEM to literature?

Were The Oregon Trail video games of my youth the peak of educational gaming?

Much of what I found on the research behind the effectiveness of The Oregon Trail games has yet to truly be studied. I looked through my university’s libraries and only found small mentions of The Oregon Trail in studies about the effectiveness of video games in the classroom (See Watson, Mong, & Harris, 2011 and Young et al. 2012). Now that the game is getting older it’s unlikely that there will be a comprehensive study coming anytime soon on the impact that The Oregon Trail video game can have on learning. If you know of a peer-reviewed study on the effectiveness of The Oregon Trail, or games like it, that I have missed, feel free to post the link in the comments below.

While The Oregon Trail video game may not have a dedicated study on the relationship between playing it and student achievement, the fact is there remains a number of gaps in the literature about the effectiveness of video-gaming in general. Defining the difference between a video-game, a simulation, and a waste of time would be a useful start for both educational researchers and teachers (Young et al. 2012). There is a need to develop more effective research measures that can account for the dynamics of multiple players in rich contexts, as well as the impossibility of the same game being played in exactly the same way twice (Young et al. 2012).

There may be iPads and Chromebooks in most classrooms nowadays, but I feel like we are squandering the potential for using digital games to support active and deeper learning by providing an engaging and contextualized setting for authentic problem solving (Ke, Xie, & Xie, 2016). The good news is we might not have to look farther than a game made in 1985 to find a good model for the future of educational video games.

References

Watson, W. R., Mong, C. J., & Harris, C. A. (2011). A case study of the in-class use of a video game for teaching high school history. Computers and Education. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2010.09.007

Young, M. F., Slota, S., Cutter, A. B., Jalette, G., Mullin, G., Lai, B., … Yukhymenko, M. (2012). Our Princess Is in Another Castle: A Review of Trends in Serious Gaming for Education. Review of Educational Research, 82(1), 61–89. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654312436980

Ke, F., Xie, K., & Xie, Y. (2016). Game-based learning engagement: A theory- and data-driven exploration. British Journal of Educational Technology, 47(6), 1183–1201. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.12314

*Apparently it was really tippy

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