Twenty-five years ago Oregon Trail changed the face of games in learning. One industry pro looks at lessons learned
Walk into any bar and ask if someone remembers Oregon Trail. They’re bound to launch into a story about fording the river and losing all their supplies, how little Mary died of dysentery, or how their family’s wagon turned over on the journey. Oregon Trail defines an entire generation of adults. There’s a certain amount of childhood nostalgia that became visible in February as the 1990 version of the game became available to play for free, via the Internet Archive.
What is it about Oregon Trail that had such a profound impact on us that we clearly remember the experience years later?
Part of the answer lies in the way in which social studies is often taught. Despite the best efforts of teachers, history classes cover so much material that often the only choice is to focus on major events, dates, and important people. Not surprisingly, many kids find that sort of rote memorization boring and never truly engage with the material. That affects both comprehension and retention. Long after the test, students might remember the date of the Battle of Hastings, but the context and significance is often lost.
Oregon Trail stemmed from the realization that kids learn more when they are learning about real people doing real things. Deeper learning happens when teachers show life and culture. If history is taught in this way, students can learn to analyze, categorize, process and communicate, and evaluate the motivation behind an action.
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[image via theNerdPatrol via Flickr]
When kids learn about real people who lived in the past, they begin to identify with them. They are able to see history as a story made up of patterns and repeating trends, not just a list of facts to memorize. That helps make the topic relevant to students and encourages them to apply those analytical skills to the world around them. When history becomes immediate instead of theoretical, it turns into an adventure instead of a chore. History taught in an immersive way helps students become engaged, excited, and eager to learn more.
Why Choose Games?
Part of what made Oregon Trail such an effective teaching tool was that it was structured as a game. Playing wasn’t about passing a test, it was about finding a way to get little Mary to the end without a catastrophe. Embedded in that experience was a variety of important information: certain foods are more nutritious or more durable than others; wagons are complicated machines that needed as much upkeep as a car does today; diseases were far more deadly in the past than they are now due to a lack of effective medication, etc. Learning was seamlessly blended with gameplay. Certainly, students learned about the dates the Oregon Trail was used, its geography, and its significance, but they also had a first-hand look into the very real hardships of the people who used it. That emotional connection to historic events is extremely powerful, as evidenced by the number of people who remember what they learned from a short game they played as children decades ago.
Today, with the implementation of the Common Core state standards, there is an emphasis on making text-to-self connections, especially in the primary grades. The evidence shows that when students make an implicit connection between information and themselves, it is more likely the information is remembered later. Immersive games like Oregon Trail ask players, “What would you have done in that situation?” This is more powerful than just physically reading a textbook and absorbing the facts because of its emotional connection and cumulative learning effect. It forces students to draw on what they know and requires them to think differently about the information they’re receiving.
Teachers have always known that games and learning belong together. Now we have remarkable technology available to us that makes the game experience more comprehensive and interactive than ever before. Immersive gaming today quite literally puts students in the shoes of someone else, providing a link between information and experience. These holistic experiences allow players to engage with a certain time period or environment as if they were there. In immersive games, history crosses the standard curricular boundaries and becomes a vehicle to build and apply higher-level skills.
Oregon Trail was groundbreaking when it was first introduced and continues to be the gold standard against which all history games are measured. With the recent focus on STEM, social studies has taken a back seat. STEM is absolutely vital to our kids’ success, but kids also need the tools to analyze, process, and implement information that social studies courses provide. It is my hope that educators will continue to take advantage of the deeper learning provided by the immersive social studies games that have followed in the path blazed by Oregon Trail.
Suzi Wilczynski, a former archaeologist and middle school teacher, is the founder and president of Dig-It! Games, an independent developer of interactive educational games for kids.
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