Guest Blog: "What Oregon Trail Can Teach Today’s Game Designers" - Part 2 - By Don Rawitsch

RE@L Logo 60px We are pleased to bring to our readers Don Rawitsch’s Part Two Blog on what Oregon Trail can still teach us after all these years of fun and learning. In fact, fun and learning are two of the most important lessons that need to be learned by those designing new games. Thanks to Don for his list of critical issues for learning and games, one of the emerging ways our kids will learn in the future.

If you have any comments or questions for Don, be sure to submit them by clicking on our Comments page at: We look forward to hearing from all you Oregon Trail Trekkers out there.



“What Oregon Trail Can Teach Today’s Game Designers:”

In my previous article, I described how learning game design is becoming a formal academic discipline.  Over forty years ago, my two colleagues and I had no idea in creating the Oregon Trail game about formal precepts for game design.  We were guided by our teacher instincts: what would kids enjoy?, what would help them learn?  It is gratifying to see in hindsight that we incorporated many of the standards now taught in formal game design programs.

  • Embed learning and assessment into a game format

imagesToo many classroom sessions begin with the teacher announcing, “Today we are going to learn about . . .”  The magic of games in the classroom is that students focus on a fun challenge and pick up learning without realizing it until later.  I know this because people approach me decades after their school days are over to share their knowledge, obtained from traveling the Trail in the game.  The best month to leave on the journey is April, after the heaviest spring rains but leaving enough time to beat the winter mountain blizzards.  If you shoot a buffalo you can only use part of the meat as the rest will spoil after a few days with no refrigeration.

Worse yet: “Today you will take a test on what you have learned in our Westward Movement unit.”  Why not use the OT game as a “real life” test of knowledge learned in that unit?  If you survive the trip, you get an A; if not, well, you need to review!  I predict that future classroom games will track the student’s strategy decisions and then report to the teacher and parent on how those decisions link to the thinking skills called for in educational standards.

  • Combine a sophisticated model with simple user operation


The Oregon Trail simulation game is built on a model of what actually confronted the pioneers, based on historical research.  So many combinations of events exist that the game never plays the same way twice.  And yet, very few user instructions are needed.  Students as young as grade 3 can play successfully.


  • Multiple levels of learning strengthen a game  

BloomStudents initially focus on strategy learning.  What are the right decisions when faced with certain situations that will help me “win” the game by surviving the full journey?  Along the way they learn subject matter: history, geography, finance.  At a higher level comes process learning, especially if the students are assigned to play the game as a team of four or five.  I have witnessed student groups invent their own processes for a) group decision making by voting and b) team member specialization in which each member concentrates on his or her best skill: hunting via keyboard, leading decision voting, following the wagon’s progress on a detailed map, and tracking the group’s resources to avoid shortages at critical times.  This richness of learning opportunities only strengthens the teacher’s rationale for using class time for game play.

  • The power of collaboration in game design


Ten programmers in a room would not have produced the Oregon Trail game, nor ten historians.

Fortuitously, a college history major and two in mathematics began discussing their differing teaching activities and hit upon a game idea that became a standard curriculum activity in schools across the country for two decades.  Diversity of perspectives is a key to an effective design team.

In the previous blog I related the game creation mantra of the Carnegie Mellon Entertainment Technology Center: “game, design, story.”  For learning games, this translates into reaching a student’s mind, eyes and ears, and heart. It worked for Oregon Trail and provides a rule of thumb for future learning game development. Click here to read the previous blog.

Stay tuned for more on this revolutionary new way that more learners will learn more!

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Tom King & Dale LaFrenz

Dr. Tom King has served for over 40 years as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Saint Thomas in the School of Education. The Saturn School of Tomorrow, formerly a St. Paul Public School, and his visionary response to educational reform, was a lighthouse on the frontier of school change. Tom was an experienced high school teacher of mathematics, a school administrator, and Director of Technology for the St. Paul MN Public Schools. He is also a member of the RE@L Team. Dr. Dale LaFrenz is Chairman of RE@L and one of the founders of MECC Software who brought “Oregon Trail” to millions of K12 kids everywhere. He has written extensively on the history and evolution of Ed Tech. His work in forging new paths for MECC’S “edutainment" software was instrumental in connecting school-markets, kids, teachers and consumer-markets/kids/parents, and now serves as the new launching pad for RE@L apps and software.

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