Tuesday, September 8, 2020
September 8, 2020: History through Games: The Oregon Trail
[One of the most consistent through-lines in my life as an AmericanStudier, from my own childhood through my experiences with my sons, has been games, both board/card and video. So this week I’ll analyze a handful of games that offer complex lessons about our past, leading up to a Guest Post on the wonderful Reacting to the Past pedagogical games!]
On three takeaways from the pioneering video game.
I used “pioneering” there not just for the Dad Joke-worthy pun (although duh), but also because it highlights the most obvious and important historical issue with The Oregon Trail, one I wrote about in this blog post: the absence of Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and really any ethnic American communities from its vision of the West. I didn’t notice that absence at all as a kid enthralled by the game, and that’s precisely the point: Oregon Trail played into stereotypical visions of American pioneers, and indeed like all popular art that traffics in stereotypes it also amplified and further entrenched those limiting images. I’m not suggesting that the game should have focused centrally on Native American communities, nor that a children’s video game had to include graphic depictions of war; every game has the right to choose its own subject and to present it in a way that’s appropriate for its audience. But a game set in the mid-19th century American West needs at least to include the communities and cultures that are part of that world, and on that question Oregon Trail came up very short. [See the comment below for an important correction to part of this paragraph!]
With that most important thing said, there are also other historical lessons we can learn from what Oregon Trail’s designers did choose to include. Another one that would be easy to miss (and that I’ll admit I hadn’t thought about at all until brainstorming topics for this post) is the deeply solitary nature of the Trail as the game portrays it. I didn’t have a chance to play the game while researching this post, but as I remember it at least the player really doesn’t see any other wagons or people between leaving Independence, Missouri and arriving in Oregon. Perhaps players do encounter waystations for supplies or the like along the way, but I’m thinking here about other travelers, about the idea of wagon trains (which as I understand it were a typical way for families to traverse the Trail). I understand the game’s goal of forcing players to deal with all the myriad challenges themselves, rather than offering them the possibility of relying upon other families for aid—but that choice does seem to reinforce another stereotypical American image, that of “rugged individuals” (rather than what to my mind is a far more shared historical experience, of communal survival).
I don’t want to emphasize only frustrations with the game’s portrayal of its historical subjects, though. After all, there are reasons why Oregon Trail was one of the most successful video games of its era, and indeed why it remains successful today, as it’s one of the only games from my childhood that my sons have also heard of and played. And one of the things I think Oregon Trail does best is capture the profoundly fraught and contingent nature of life (and death) in its mid-19th century moment. The most famous such element is the constant threat of illness, especially that damn dysentery. But while some such negative outcomes (like getting one of those diseases) were mostly due to chance and bad luck, many others emphasized contingency—how one bad decision could produce disastrous and even fatal outcomes, not only immediately (ie, if you choose to ford a river that’s too deep or wild) but also far down the road (ie, if you purchase the wrong supplies and end up stuck or dead hundreds of miles later). Given hindsight, the past can sometimes feel inevitable or predetermined—but it was of course just as contingent and unfolding as our present and future, and in its specific but significant way Oregon Trail highlighted those realities quite potently.
Next game tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other historical games you’d highlight?