The Story Behind Oregon Trail

In honor of the previous post about Oregon Trail & Carmen San Diego coming to Facebook, here’s a story about the origin of Oregon Trail.

Rawitsch, a lanky, bespectacled 21-year-old with hair well over his ears, was both a perfectionist and an idealist. He started dressing as historical figures in an attempt to win over his students, appearing in the classroom as explorer Meriwether Lewis.

By now he’d made it through to the western expansion unit, and he had in mind his boldest idea yet.

What he had so far was a board game tracing a path from Independence, Missouri, to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. The students would pretend to be pioneer families. Each player would start with a certain amount of money and buy oxen, clothes, and food. Students would advance with the roll of a die, along the way encountering various misfortunes: broken limbs, thieves, disease. In roughly 12 turns, the kids would simulate the 2,000-mile journey that thousands of pioneers made to the West Coast in the 19th century.

He called it “Oregon Trail.”

Read the whole story here.

The “Educational” Games of my Youth Come to Facebook

As if I needed an excuse to be distracted at work, Carmen San Diego and Oregon Trail are coming to Facebook!

What’s interesting to me is that unlike, say, Farmville, Carmen San Diego and Oregon Trail are actually supposed to kind of teach you things. Like, for example, that even if you shoot an entire buffalo you can only carry fifty pounds back with you — even if you have, like ten kids traveling with you. (You know what I’m talking about, Oregon Trail players!)

So what do y’all think about this? Is it just a nostalgia fest for those of us who remember these games? Do these games teach anything? Are they ‘fun’? Anyone? Bueller?

Sure a gaming education sounds good, but where do we go from here?

In my recent trip to the Digital Ops, I was thoroughly intrigued with how certain types of games encouraged different types of behaviors in its players. The Ship was certainly a game that was solely played for individual gain. I found myself fumbling about trying to figure out the keys while being pummeled to death by another player with a mannequin arm. Though it seemed frustrating, I felt a certain determination to continue in the game, attempt to master the controls and most importantly – not give up. Left 4 Dead had interesting team components and was certainly a good model for team-work and leadership. All these characteristics combined made for a seemingly great educational experience in the classroom, that is, until I got overwhelmingly nauseated by the first person shooter perspective.

So far I have agreed with Gee’s principles, the learning theories and that video games possess various characteristics that make them an excellent tool for educating. I think video games allow for a sense of achievement, motivation, exploration and identity. But how can we revamp our education system to include games that every student will feel motivated to play? What games will feel fun for everyone and not just an extra chore? What is THE best game that will provide the best learning environment?

This argument feels as though we are back to square one. In my opinion there are various problems with our school system now such as lack of desire and motivation to learn by some students. How can we be sure video games would fix this problem? Additionally, our educational system is a rigid path of studying the facts and spending great lengths of time listening to lectures in the classroom. Obviously, our system now is not the best way to encourage learning for all students, but what is to say that gaming will? What about those (insane) students that may not enjoy video games? Or in terms of my experience, what if a student is nauseated by the perspective or set up of a game?

As with any problem, there is always a working solution. Video games may not be the one final solution for our educational needs, but it can certainly be of help to supplement what is already in place. We can only work with what we have so far but I think the idea of a correct game “fit” for students is an interesting concept for the future.

As a final point, I believe supplementing education with video games may have greater benefits than previously realized. A gaming education may provide a means for students with learning disabilities to better advance in their schooling. Gaming could have a great future for students with conditions such as blindness or deafness and even those with disabilities. Games may help in advancing critical learning for students of all backgrounds in the near future, we just have to figure out which games best fit the perfect learning picture.

Jeffery Sachs, Video Games and Social Change

Here is an interesting read on Jeffrey Sachs’s (Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University) stance on social change as we evolve to meet the standards of the future.  Sachs was recently at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy to discuss ‘Sustainable Development Politics, Policy and Priorities.”  Here is a link to the original blog post, where a video of his speech can be seen…

Through his discussion of economic convergence, Sachs pointed out concerns over future population and economic growth, specifically way in which current economic models neglect to consider boundary constraints in development. For instance, these models should take into account the available technological capacity to support economic and population growth. Sachs demonstrated through his discussion that not only do we have a very good idea of the environmental thresholds of the planet, (Rockstrom et al, Nature Magazine Sept. 23, 2009 “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity”) but we also have many technologies available to make the appropriate changes to reverse and/or prevent future damage.

This lecture ended with what I felt was just the beginning of another discussion, one which focused on the national sentiment toward climate change and environmental policy. By and large, as cited by Sachs from the Pew Research Center’s survey on climate change, certain societal groups within the United States have moved away from the belief that human activity is a primary cause of global warming and that global warming is a result of natural climate change. This may not be new news, however, it does bring up the point that in order for large social change with implications for poverty alleviation to occur, there must be a certain degree of social/political will involved.

The issue deepens when considered in the context of today’s society or perhaps more importantly, tomorrow’s society. In a recent interview on the NPR program, “On the Media,” program host Brooke Gladstone interviewed Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games, a game design and development studio. Schell said he sees changes in society this way:  “… the twenty-first century is going to be a war on the attention of humanity; where a civilization focuses its attention, that’s what defines what the civilization cares about.” The connection to Sachs’ discussion of environmental change and sustainability is direct: How can we maintain purposeful and productive interest in sustainable development practices within a population, society and world that is growing exponentially and moving from one new activity to another at an increasing pace?

The discussion with Schell during “On the Media” focused on the integration of meaning and purpose into video games. This idea was discussed as an opportunity to engage a specific population with a unique skill set (i.e., gamers) in work solving larger societal issues. The suggestion of Schell and Jane McGonigal, who also is interviewed toward the end of the program, is to engage the millions of gamers who already operate in collaborative environments, in tasks that are relevant to today’s issues, thus potentially translating their behavior/skill sets into real-life contexts. Video gamers represent a large population of individuals who are simulating life experiences while also developing practical skills such as decision making and task management, usually performing these tasks at once. McGonigal goes so far as to list traits of gamers that make them prime candidates for future meaning-infused gaming and an unprecedented human resource for problem solving. These qualities include:

  1. Urgent optimism: Desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle combined with the belief that we have a reasonable hope for success
  2. Ability to weave a tight social fabric: Building up trust, spending time with individuals, developing bonds and working toward social cooperation.
  3. Blissful productivity: We are happier working hard than when we are relaxing if we are given the right work.
  4. Epic meaning: Attached to awe-inspiring missions and innovations and working to create information resources that help us to understand our world better.

All of these elements, McGonigal argues, add up to the belief of many gamers that they are individually capable of changing their virtual world (Listen to her TED talk here). The remaining issue is then to transfer this energy from the satisfaction of online gaming communities to real-life issues like Sachs’ description of environmental sustainability and poverty alleviation. McGonigal’s argument, and Schell’s for the most part, both center on the realization that gamers don’t feel the same way about solving problems in real life as they do in game settings. Their objective is to catalyze the problem-solving capacity of this population into new circumstances that are socially relevant.