The idea that video games can serve an educational purpose is hardly new. In fact, some of the industry pioneers were driven to develop games because of the potential they saw in them for classroom instruction.
Take one of the oldest and most successful video games of all time: The Oregon Trail. Its story begins in 1971 with Don Rawitsch, an education student at Carleton College in Minnesota. Hoping to come up with a game that could help teach students about the westward movement of U.S. settlers in the mid-19th century, Rawitsch teamed up with several fellow student teachers to create a game in which players take on the role of an Oregon-bound pioneer in the 1840’s, making critical life-or-death decisions about where to hunt for food, whether to cross the Rocky Mountains in the middle of winter and what to do about the passenger who has fallen sick with dysentery.
Three years later, the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, a nonprofit focused on expanding the use of computers in education, agreed to produce the game for distribution in public schools across the state. Before long, The Oregon Trail was being used in classrooms across the country, serving the joint purpose of teaching history and computing skills.
More than four decades later, The Oregon Trail has sold more than 60 million copies worldwide and remains a treasured resource for educators and gamers alike. Here are five things The Oregon Trail can teach game-based learning developers even today:
A good game endures
A game that stimulates players intellectually never gets old. Unlike games that are devised purely for entertainment, educational games are not as vulnerable to technological changes that promise something “bigger and better.” While Pong and Asteroids have become distant memories in the world of gaming, The Oregon Trail and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? remain popular.
Keep it simple
Decades after its development, The Oregon Trail remains a relatively simple game. While the graphics have improved, the game’s objective has stayed the same: To get across the country without dying. The gameplay itself is also relatively straightforward. For instance, unlike many contemporary games, it does not demand lightning-fast reaction speed with a remote control or keyboard. Nor do players have to learn a complex set of rules. Instead, their attention remains focused on the central challenge: Making decisions that will keep the characters alive.
Clearly-defined learning outcomes
Educators who are strapped for time and resources need to know exactly what a game will teach a student. The Oregon Trail has a very clear educational objective: It teaches students about a pivotal era in American history. Other games may deliver intellectual or educational benefits, but if it’s not clear what they can deliver within the context of a school curriculum, teachers will be hesitant to take a chance on them.
It doesn’t demand prior knowledge
Your strength in a quiz game, such as Jeopardy! or Trivial Pursuit, is based on how much knowledge you’ve acquired about a subject (or multiple subjects) before playing. Those who happen to know a lot about Goethe or the Spanish Armada have a big advantage over those who have never heard of either. In contrast, The Oregon Trail does not demand or even favor prior knowledge about the subject matter, making it universally accessible and enjoyable. In fact, the goal of the game is to learn and gain subject mastery as you play, so having familiarity about the topic is not a requirement.
It isn’t abstract
To many students, history courses seem utterly detached from their day-to-day lives. What they learn in lecture-based courses is a series of dates and events that they find hard to relate to. More often than not, they learn everything from a book, perhaps accompanied by a few drawings, or they take notes from a presentation.
The Oregon Trail, on the other hand, puts students in the shoes of a person experiencing all of those situations. They’ve probably never experienced a smallpox outbreak or had to hunt for their own food. In essence, the game takes a slice of American history and brings it to life. In the process of playing the game, the student not only acquires knowledge about events that took place, just as they would from a textbook or lecture, but they gain an appreciation for what those events meant for the people who lived them.