|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.