Oregon Trail on the iPad

One of the games I purchased for the iPad was Oregon Trail, a historical adventure game based on traveling west on the Oregon Trail. I was intrigued by this game because this is one of the few games based on an educational concept that was actually considered fun outside the classroom.

Game Play

For those who haven’t played Oregon Trail before, the game is built around a quest to move your family West on the Oregon Trail before time and supplies run out and with as many survivors as possible.

You begin in Missouri with a wagon and some options to gear up your wagon and stock it with food, guns, bullets and clothing. You then head to different points on the trail. On the trail (at least in the iPhone version), you are given different challenges in terms of navigating barriers (e.g. rivers) and hunting food on the trail (this will be VERY important as it turns out). You also have to navigate different weather and hope no one gets sick or injured (beware the giant eagle). If that happens you have to choose whether to spend time healing, spend money on medicines or use some other supplies.

As with other adventures, you learn to juggle resources which is what the actual pioneers did. You also encounter historical figures (and even run optional errands for them such as delivering letters to the next town). This game effectively teaches you the hazards of the West and the benefits of cooperation as well as a good aim.

Design Lessons

What design lessons can instructional designers learn? I think most would agree that the lesson can be summed up as making sure a game “doesn’t shove educational crap down your throat.” BUT WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

First, the game mood is a little on the silly side. The graphics were originally primitive, but even once better technology was available, the characters and setting were definitely cartoonish (I always loved Ma’s giant bonnet and Pa’s bushy mustache). Death is a common occurrence in this game, but is treated humorously. In many versions, kids get to write their own tombstones before getting back on the wagon.

The second part of the “no educational crap” is that there extended text explaining the hazards of the trail. You get the dysentery, then you decide how to handle it. The same is true for broken axles, sick oxen or low food supplies. It IS learning by doing. On a side note, the hazards are not rigorously described. It’s not important to know the symptoms of dysentary to appreciate that someone is sick. Similarly, we don’t need to know exactly which tribe we’re encountering to appreciate the benefits of being nice to the local population. This means (sniff) eliminating real historical. I admit that this is a challenge for me, but it is just a game….

A third lesson is that the game is embedded in a personalized narrative because the game lets you experience the trail for yourself. Also, it’s kind of a challenge. I was able to navigate most of the challenges, but that eagle is literally a killer. How to handle that sucker? Replay or cheat code seems to be the answer.

A final lesson to consider is that the game fits the learning objectives. The game does not really teach facts about the trail (e.g. specific locations, people, etc). You may learn some of this by playing frequently, but it’s not critical information. The actual objectives are to understand the challenges of navigating the trail, and the game does this very well. In other words, I am thinking games are generally more about learning skills rather than facts.

Some Caveats

A discussion that comes up in educational gaming is how much gaming can replace traditional education. I would definitely agree that a well-constructed game can teach things that a lecture cannot.

But I also feel that if a game is used in the classroom, then there should be a debriefing session. Many times lessons are so well learned, that students don’t even realize what they’ve learned until they reflect upon it.

Another concept I struggle with is how to incorporate a game with the “facts” valued by traditional education. One school of thought is to forget facts and focus on higher order knowledge, but I think that’s too simplistic. Analysis often relies on someone recalling the right facts (in fact I always felt that Batman is probably a Trivia Pursuit whiz in disguise).

Games traditionally present this information needed as tutorials and references or in the framework of the plot, and I think that would work here too. But I do think it’s important to remember that some of this verbal knowledge should have a place in a course, even if it’s not as large as it traditionally has been.

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