Monday, May 14, 2012

The Oregon Trail for the 21st Century

Many people have fond memories of the 1974 computer game Oregon Trail, originally produced by the Minnesota Education Computing Consortium (MECC).  Who didn't enjoy the thrill of the hunt, or the despair of seeing party members die of dysentery?  In spite of its simple graphics, the game has had lasting appeal, and is now in its 5th edition, in addition to having a version made for the Wii.

But what about a game about surviving a long, difficult, life-threatening journey in the 21st century?

Well, the people at The Men Who Wear Many Hats have made just such a game.

They have taken the format, look, and even tasks of the original Oregon Trail, updated them for the 21st century, and added zombies.  It's a fantastic concept, because introduces the urgency and difficulty that the pioneers traveling the original Oregon Trail faced in a way that creates a similar feeling for 21st century players.

When playing the game, I had a great time.  I was reminded of the danger of naming party members after people you know when one of my party got bitten by a zombie, and I didn't want to shoot him--I wanted to see if he could pull through.  As a result, I wasted a lot of resources keeping him healthy, so that he wouldn't turn into a full-fledged zombie.

The developers did a good job of balancing fidelity to the original game with 21st century/zombie-related updates.  Players can still die of dysentery, but instead of having to ford rivers, you have to outrun zombie hordes.  Instead of hunting for bison, squirrels, and deer, you scavenge for groceries while shooting zombies that are coming at you.  It's a balance that brings back a lot of great memories while also creatively doing its own thing.

I was also struck by how valuable this game could be as an educational resource--having students play this game alongside the original Oregon Trail game could enable them to make connections between what pioneers had to do for survival and the 21st century equivalents.  While we don't have to hunt for food anymore, for example, we do have to find food at grocery stores.  For many students who are so unused to thinking about their lives in terms of survival, this pairing might open up a whole new way of thinking about daily life.

The only drawback of the game for me was how long it took.  You have to travel from the east coast all the way to Oregon, avoiding the nuclear blast zone in the middle of the Dakotas.  It's a really long trip, and I ran out of gas about 2/3 of the way through.  I didn't have any money (having spent it on medkits), and no one would trade me, so I was stuck.  I don't remember the original game taking quite so long, but perhaps that's just a trick of memory.

At any rate, since I got stuck, I haven't seen the ending yet--and since I have papers that I need to grade, it seems that this afternoon is the perfect time to find out what exactly happens when I reach the Willamette Valley after outrunning the zombie apocalypse.