During finals last semester, I came down with a nasty case of the flu. Desperate for distraction, I scoured the Internet for something fun. I read that Internet Archive had recently uploaded an enormous batch of classic computer games. Since I’m a history nerd, I clicked on the link for the Archive’s edition of the original Oregon Trail. I spent much of that day recuperating from the flu while guiding my poor virtual family through dysentery (irony of ironies), starvation, broken limbs, death, and possibly the most disastrous river crossing in digital history. Of my family, patriarch “Orestes” and his daughter “Emmaline” made it to Oregon, but everybody else kicked the bucket. Although I was taken aback by the 8-bit brutality of the game, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and admired the genuine historical content, such as trading, speaking with Native Americans, immigrants, and Mormons on the frontier, and struggling to obtain enough meat on the trail.
I’d never played O.T. before. By the time I was old enough for video games (circa 1999-2000), the heyday of O.T. had passed. A few of my fellow third graders talked about the game (likely one of the sequel versions), but most kids weren’t playing O.T. anymore. Rather, Millennial children were turning to the Nintendo Game Boy, the PlayStation 1, and SEGA Dreamcast for gaming experiences. The video game console eclipsed computer games, at least in the New York State world of third grade socializing.
A.V. Club ran a great piece by Marah Eakin in 2013 on the history of Oregon Trail. According to Eakin, the project began in 1971 and evolved from a board game to Teletype to a full (albeit primitive) video game by MECC for the Apple II. This version of Oregon Trail reached iconic status among elementary and middle school students in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Sequels to O.T. introduced better graphics but retained the episodic structure of the original game. The series still occupies its own pop culture niche today. An entire Wikia page is devoted to the history of O.T. Not long ago, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released an iOS app of O.T., revealing that the game has appeal outside of the nostalgia market.
Internet Archive’s preservation of older generation of video games, down to the goofy old computer animation and glyph-like text, certainly carries nostalgic value. But the project also carries unique implications for the history profession, namely the importance of archiving born-digital sources and outdated computing technology. Vint Cerf, pioneering Internet scientist and now the Chief Internet Evangelist for Google, recently spoke to the BBC about the importance and difficulty of preserving old operating systems, programs, and files, which may no longer be readable or functional on the latest computer systems. In the BBC article, Cerf uses the phrase “digital vellum” to describe old digital products that are archived for posterity. Carnegie Mellon University’s Olive Archive project is a major contributor to this historical computing initiative, turning outdated systems into executable content. Similarly, Internet Archive now has old software available to download.
It’s worth noting that both Internet Archive and Olive Archive added Oregon Trail to their first collections of digital vellum. Internet Archive has gone a step farther and added 1992’s Oregon Trail Deluxe, too. The expertise to do this archival work may be scientific, but knowledge of the humanities clearly is a factor in selecting what gets saved.
A new specialized form of archival work blending computer science, electrical engineering, and history is necessary to do the work of Cerf, Internet Archive, and Olive Archive. The preservation not just of video games, but also websites, computers, operating systems, and old programming languages has the potential to remove disciplinary barriers between social science, applied science, and the humanities. This historical computer science will require extensive academic and technical training, so I would not be surprised if we see universities launch digital archivist degree programs over the next decade.
But back to Oregon Trail! I conducted a thoroughly non-social-scientific test by Facebooking my older cousins and asking what they thought of O.T. The responses were enthusiastic across the board – the game conjured fond memories of childhood. The idea of video game ethnography intrigued me, so I reached out to Villanova’s history graduate student community. Several M.A. candidates shared their reflections on the original O.T. and its sequels.
“I believe, though I may be mistaken, that the recently remastered one is O.T. 1 – a game I never played. Now, if we are to speak of Oregon Trail 3, boy did I spend ages playing that game. One of my favourite parts of the game was reading the tally of my game at the end, especially the various diseases that members of my travelling party died from. That and killing thousands of pounds of bison and bears but only carrying 300 rubbish pounds back to my starving wagon-mates. It really puts the near-extinction of large mammals in North America into context.” – Sian Webb
“I mostly associate the gaming experience with indoor recesses when I was around 6 or 7. My school didn’t have many computers, so there would always be a few kids crowded around a screen helping to make decisions for the game while other kids manned the different computers. Occasionally, whoever had the computer also felt generous and let someone else do the hunting.” – Shane Sprandio
“I remember playing Oregon Trail in computer class in middle school, but since we were not allowed to save after each class period, I never, never actually made it to Oregon. I can only imagine how failing to achieve this childhood right of passage will scar my life. Anyway, I think one of the benefits of the game is to make players think about the challenges pioneers faced in starting a new life on the frontier. It is a foreign concept to us to have to plan for what you will need months from now, knowing that once you leave town there will be no other way to get it.
Plus it is probably the only time that dysentery will ever affect our lives.” – Mike Johnson
“For me, Oregon Trail represents one of my greatest childhood memories, not because it allowed me a brief respite from math class, but because it marked the first time I experienced playing a video game alongside others. I recall hearing students angrily yelling at the game as their last family member died of dysentery, while others miraculously finished the game and held that moment as one of their greatest accomplishments. These moments with other people are what made this game special.” – James Schmitt