In 1971 three students at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota came up with the idea to do something new with computers. Don Rawitsch, Paul Dillenberger, and Bill Heinemann were studying education and about to start work as student teachers. Rawitsch was tasked with 8th grade American history and wanted to make something more interesting and engaging than the usual lecture or boring reading. He wanted to engage the students in new and exciting ways, so Rawitsch began to prototype a tabletop game that simulated being a pioneer. It was originally played with dice, but Dillenberger and Heinemann suggested a different method. Both had received rudimentary training in computer programming, and in Rawitsch’s game they saw something that could translate well to a computer. Though none of them was an expert at code, Rawitsch described that they did have “an understanding of how an event could be simulated mathematically by setting up algebraic relationships between variables that represented the impact of user decisions, the financial value of supplies, and random events.” In two weeks, the trio was able to create a working version of a game they called “the Oregon Trail.”
Rawitsch, Dillenberger, and Heinemann’s game placed players in the role of a wagon leader journeying on the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon in 1848. At the beginning of the game players make crucial decisions on how to spend a limited set of funds on supplies such as bullets, clothing, food, and oxen. Players faced further decisions on the trail, most of which were generated at random by the computer. As Rawitsch described: “We designed the game so there would be many different options from game to game. Each turn, you might proceed forward. You might stop at a fort. You might go quickly. You might go slowly. You might eat a lot. You might eat a little. Each of those decisions had implications for your resources and how quickly you made your way across the trail.” (Wong, 2017).