This past week my digital history class discussed historical digital storytelling and specifically historical games. I played the Oregon Trail for the first time to see what all the hype was about – apparently if you were a child in the 1990s everyone played this game – and had mixed thoughts about it. Overall, I thought the decisions the game prompted the user to make showcased the issues travelers had in the mid-1800s completing the journey, yet it flattened the history of indigenous people and the effect the Oregon Trial had on them.
I liked that the game instantly creates a personal experience thus engaging the user, as the user at the beginning has to type in names of one’s fellow travelers and can pick which character they want to be in the trail (i.e. a banker or farmer). The game is clear in its outset that the user’s goal is to get to the end of the Oregon Trail and reach Oregon City. The user is continually prompted by the game to make a decision based off of the steps needed to achieve this goal: one has to make decisions on how much money to pay for supplies and when to start the journey, and once on the trail, one has to make decisions when the group comes across bandits, disease, fatigue, a river, etc. There are a few seconds when the user does not reach a barricade or one of the above events, and the graphical interface shows the company continuously walking forward. When an event or problem arises, the user will be blocked from continuing on until they respond to that problem. In these ways, the Oregon Trail seems to accurately depict the conditions settlers faced trying to migrate west – from their vantage point they kept walking forward even though they weren’t walking in a straight line. There also was a whole host of disease, fatigue, scarcity of food, and possibility of failing the journey, which this trail captures well.
However, the Oregon Trail game does not provide any analysis on the historical purpose of travelers wanting to reach Oregon City, nor does it flesh out the political identities of these travelers. The people migrating west on this trail are assumed to be white settlers, but the game does not provide any context or other characters for the user to explicitly realize this. Historically, westward migration in the U.S. was seen as an inherent right that white Americans had. When American colonists rebelled from Britain during the Revolution, it was for the right to not only own land but to own any location of land they desired. However, when settlers expanded west, they were pushing indigenous people out of their homelands. The Oregon Trail does not mention or capture this history in any way. The only time I came across indigenous people in the game is when travelers received help finding food from “Indians.” This type of romanticized interaction was not accurate to the history of settler colonialism and especially westward expansion in the mid-1800s.
Though the Oregon Trail does seem to accurately depict the daily decisions settlers had to make in order to achieve the goal of making it to the end of the trail, it does not address why they are on the trail in the first place and who the trail pushes out. The game could not only be updated visually from its 1990 version but could also incorporate actual indigenous characters and situations where settlers came across raids by indigenous people. The game could also provide a little more context in the beginning of the journey as to why settlers thought they should migrate west.