Why "The Oregon Trail" Was Ahead Of Its Time And a Beautiful Metaphor for Life

Look, Wil, I love you, but my God, you bite your tongue

The Oregon Trail was not not as good as you remember. It's better than you remember, and it's a pioneer of computer gaming if there ever was one. It's been two decades since I sat in Laurel Elementary's computer lab mindlessly punching a keyboard and staring into a screen—some things never change—but I remember it like it was yesterday. For three or four glorious years I sat directly next to my decade-long crush, Kelly H. (remember: it's federal law that everything in grade-school must be done in alphabetical order) and it was always the best 55 minutes of every week. 

But Kelly H. wasn't the reason I fell in love with The Oregon Trail, or why I still love the game to this day. Apart from recess, no experience before sixth grade better prepared me for what life had in store. Please, tell me, what other exercise could teach more about geography, finding food, terminal disease, how to swim, and proper meat-to-vehicle ratio? It was perhaps the most important building block of my life and I hope it remains a staple of elementary school afternoons across the country. We are all better for having played this game and will continue to be, so long as future generations remain steadfast in pursuit of its awesomeness. I'm an Oregon Trail supporter 'till the day I die.

Of Cholera. While fording a river. 

I work in an office. There are a dozen people on my team. We sit in close proximity to one another, like 25-foot-diameter-close. All day, we...we talk. We laugh a lot. We cry sometimes. We eat constantly. We drink too much. We hold in farts. We fight. We talk sh*t. We confuse each other. We hate each other. We love each other. 

And we're all working towards the same goal, for better or worse. We fight, claw and scrape for every last bit of progress every day. Some days are better than others. (Hey, it's the Internet—no one knows how it's going to act.) We are, you might say, on an undefined, treacherous expedition into uncharted territory with no promise of making it to the other side alive. 


Indeed, the social lessons learned in TOT apply to our modern society perhaps better than any other formal activities we ever engaged in as youngsters. When driving that damn four-wheeled beast of a wagon across the Midwest, if your daughter became sick, did you just leave her for dead and wait for the crows to pick her bones? No, no you didn't. You dropped everything—even buffalo meat—stopped the caravan, and you nursed her back to health. You gave her rest, food, and shelter from the stormy weather. You have the Mississippi River up ahead; every one needs to be at full strength. 

So when one of our team members is sick with a leg infection—do we just leave her for dead, excluding her from all creative and business conversations? No, we incessantly instant message her while she's trying to sleep and ask why she hasn't scheduled our stories for the day. And like hey, no biggie, but has "31 Gorgeous Cars For Your Wednesday" been copy edited yet? 

Teamwork. No one left behind, ever. All hands on deck. 

(There was a brief intro in TOT that reminded the player of class and society. Was this wrong? No, it was not. The deeply-academic online outlet Buzzfeed.com negatively insinuates that the game was reinforcing and deepening societal stereotypes that ultimately "traumatized" us, but that's one big steaming pile of smarmy horse sh*t. The world is a dark, cold, unfair place, kid, and you better get used to it now or you're in for a world of trouble. Frankly, I appreciated the honesty.)

But let's get to the real meat of the story. Everyone played the game to hunt buffalo. It's just a fact. I did, Kelly H. did, and so did you. Hunting was just an exciting idea at that age, and everyone loves food. It made sense. Plus, it was a game within the game, perhaps the most challenging yet most thrilling. Even as a precocious 10-year-old, you already knew a few truths about life: yes, at some point you were probably going to cross a river on a boat, but you sure as hell knew you'd probably never find yourself hunting down a buffalo with a bow and arrow. Better make it count.  

So we did. And it was cool. The hunting made you feel alive. It was...it was a visceral experience we so infrequently have the chance to experience anymore, as seemingly every piece of society has been whitewashed and diluted and filtered on Instagram to the point where it's impossible to recognize honesty, originality or integrity in anything. 

The hunting put asses in the seats, and we stopped that carriage as often as we could to hunt the buffalo roaming all over Kansas. Were we white people clearing out the main source of the Native American's food supply? Yes, we were. But, remember above when I talked about ratios? The game wouldn't let a player carry more back to the wagon than it could hold. It didn't say it in the game, but I like to think that the leftover meat went directly into the hands of the Native Americans so it wouldn't go to waste. (Another lesson: sharing is caring.) Is this all wishful thinking? Likely. But I'm an optimist. 

Another positive: I can't remember exactly how many times it was beaten into our heads by teachers that the Native Americans used every part of the buffalo, down to its toenails. From eating the meat to fashioning its ribs into weapons, not an inch went untapped. These conversations explained how we should consider our surroundings, the earth, and that all living things were to be respected in a way that we should never take more than we give. We are forever indebted to The Oregon Trail for helping visualize these lessons.

The Oregon Trail was not easy. It could be accomplished in those 55 minutes, but only if you stayed focused, blocked out the distractions/Kelly H., bartered smartly for new oxen (at least one's always going to die), and had a little luck sprinkled on top.

Something sounds familiar again.

Yep, life is full of distractions. It's full of people telling you can't cross mountains and can't achieve your dreams. It's full of disease. It's full of people you love getting sick. It's full of your pets dying 30 years earlier than they should have. It's full of mistakes, miscalculations, and missed opportunities. It's confusing and too short and too long. It's Kelly H. asking you not to call her anymore.

It's heartbreak.

No, The Oregon Trail was not for the faint of heart. But hey, brotha, neither is life.

Ryan Hatch is the deputy editor of Supercompressor.