Monday, July 22, 2013

The Oregon Trail: A Guide To Teaching

Oregon Trail Computer Game

Crossing the river posed many difficulties.

When I was in elementary school, my favorite part of every week was the time we got to spend in the computer lab.  Not because I liked the pink and blue iMac G3s, but because we got to play Oregon Trail.   Oregon Trail is a computer game that puts you in the role of someone traveling the trail out west in the 1800s.  You had to constantly make decisions throughout the game in order to ensure your survival and make it west.  For example, when you came to a river you were given information about the depth and the width in order to decide if you wanted to ford the river or pay for the ferry to take you across.  This meant that you had to determine if your ox could handle this type of depth and if you had enough money in your budget to afford the ferry.   The game also included hunting simulations so that you could eat, as well as stops at general stores to stock up on supplies.  If someone in your family got sick, you had to decide if you wanted to move on or buy medicine.  It put you in another world and let you identify with a personality completely different from your own.  Most of all, it forced the 4th grade version of myself to make life decisions that I would never be faced with in reality.

So why was this game encouraged in my school?  We never learned about what to do when your ox and covered wagon came to a river in social studies class.  We never learned about how to ration food in a health class.  And we were certainly never taught how to hunt.  I would guess that Oregon Trail was encouraged by my school because it contained elements that forced us to think critically.  In addition, we had to think about the consequences of our actions and how our decisions affected the outcome of the game.

This process of decision making, coupled with a low risk activity at the right difficulty level, is what attracted us to Oregon Trail.   As pointed out by James Paul Gee, this combination is hard to come by in a traditional classroom setting.  Often times, a classroom activity is not low risk because students do not want to look or feel "dumb" in front of their peers.  In addition, instructional activities are often tied to assessments, which students have a fear of failing.  Teaching at the right difficulty level for all students through differentiation is not easy.  When you are in the virtual world of a game, however, the levels and pace at which you move depends on your difficulty level.

So how can these competing ideas be reconciled in order to get students excited and engaged in learning?  James Paul Gee suggests that we model teaching after the learning principles present in good games.  It is about getting students to think about gaming in a strategic and reflective way and then applying that sort of thinking to the classroom.

I am not sure if Oregon Trail is around anymore, nor am I up to date with the kinds of games students like to play.  Perhaps as part of my training to become a teacher I should sit down and play some video games.  Thinking about what is going through my head as I play these games may give me some insight on how to structure my practice.  Ultimately, I want my students to walk away from my class with more knowledge than which they came with.  Looking to video and computer games may provide me with the inspiration I need to make this a reality.  


  1. Rachael,
    I wonder what enduring knowledge you have from that experience playing the video game. For example, did you learn key vocabulary that you wouldn't have learned in a traditional classroom setting? Vocabulary acquisition is something that is a struggle in all subject areas, and gaming seems to offer some awesome possibilities. If I were a game designer I might create a role-playing game that requires a student to, for example, use and recognize a word in several contexts before they could move on to the next level. I'm curious, what would a game look like in your subject area, if you were in charge of designing it?

  2. Rachael,

    I also loved to play Oregon Trail in school! Also like you, I don't think I am very up to date on the types of games students like to play. Before this week, I don't think I've played an educational video game in a long time. The last ones I remember playing were games that taught me how to type. So thinking about my lack of experience, I was intrigued with what you said about playing some games and thinking about the thinking process. I wonder now, as a future teacher and having these types of discussions about technology, how different my thinking process would be than someone else who is just playing. Or would it be different? I would think we'd still be using the same skills, but how to think about them in the greater context of school and learning would be interesting. I thought you brought up some great ideas!

  3. Rachael-
    What a fun game! My son is now addicted and plays it on his ipad whenever I let him :) I think there is so much to learn from this game. Children learn about planning, sustainability, history, and computers! I am anxious to learn about more games that have an educational value. Great post-

  4. I'm not sure if I ever really did well in Oregon Trail in elementary school. In fact I don't really remember my teachers really explaining what to do in the game at all. But, I like how you point out this game to be a low risk decision making activity. I think this is what appeals to students and teachers alike when choosing a game for a classroom setting. Especially since games are supposed to be "fun" I think this is important to keep in mind.