Segment from Playing the Past

You Have Died of Dysentery

For many of us, Oregon Trail was our first introduction to video games… and the ravages of dysentery. Nathan talks with Philip Bouchard, Lead Designer on the Apple II version of the Oregon Trail, about his role in revamping the original text-based game in the 1980s.

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Speaker 1: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

Ed Ayers: From Virginia Humanities, this is BackStory.

Nathan Connolly: Welcome to BackStory, the show that explains the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Nathan Connolly.

Ed Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers.

Brian Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh.

Nathan Connolly: If you’re new to the podcast, we and Joanne Freeman are all historians and each week we explore a different aspect of American history.

Brian Balogh: You know, Ed, as historians we’re used to encountering unfamiliar worlds. We encounter then through text and through literature, but BackStory Producer Matt Darroch recently persuaded us to put down those books and pick up a controller, thereby experiencing history, at least for me, in a very new way.

Ed Ayers: Brian, I still think Matt was looking for a creative excuse to bring histories Xbox to work, but nevertheless, you and I were excited to be introduced to the Old West as imagined by the smash hit video game Red Dead Redemption 2. And the game is not always historically accurate, but it certainly was thrilling to encounter the past through this new medium.

Matt Daroch: So as you can see you can go to a saloon here to play poker and that kind of stuff.

Ed Ayers: Where is the library?

Matt Daroch: There’s no library, there’s a gun-

Ed Ayers: No library?!

Matt Daroch: There’s a gun shop up here.

Ed Ayers: Oh, good.

Brian Balogh: I’d [inaudible 00:01:32] for the saloon, that sounds entertaining. Wow, okay, now I walk towards the doors.

Matt Daroch: Absolutely, and you can-

Brian Balogh: Look, he walked up the stairs himself. Come on, go through those swinging doors.

Matt Daroch: Okay, there’s a barber over there as well if you want to cut your hair.

Brian Balogh: Where is the barber?

Matt Daroch: Just straight ahead.

Brian Balogh: Straight ahead?

Matt Daroch: Yeah.

Barber: Hey there, fella.

Brian Balogh: Hey there, fella.

Matt Daroch: Then press the left trigger right here.

Brian Balogh: Oh, left?

Matt Daroch: Hold it down.

Brian Balogh: Wait, what’s a trigger?

Matt Daroch: Right there, you see that?

Brian Balogh: Oh, there are all kinds of buttons on this thing. Okay, so how do I get up, just start-

Matt Daroch: So press B.

Brian Balogh: B. Like people know all of this?

Speaker 8: You got to help me! I’ll pay you.

Matt Daroch: So if you want to talk to her hold L, hold the left trigger.

Speaker 8: We ain’t got a lot of time. Are you going to help me or not?

Brian Balogh: Why in the world would I help her? So Brian goes and gets a haircut.

Ed Ayers: Oh, look at all the blood you have on your [inaudible 00:02:23].

Brian Balogh: Yeah. Oh-oh, lose the law?

Ed Ayers: The cops found you.

Brian Balogh: Oh no!

Speaker 9: There, you see them?!

Brian Balogh: I’m galloping. I’m running as fast as I can with a [inaudible 00:02:36] on my back, you tell me that’s not exciting. Look at me, I’m getting away. If they shoot me they’ll hit him. Yeah, go, go. Yeah, up. Oh, not through the canyon. Here we go, go, go. Do I feel that we’re actually getting away? Do we have any sense of where the danger is?

Matt Daroch: They’re behind you, you are getting away. If you go-

Brian Balogh: I’m just going behind-

Ed Ayers: They’re joined at the [inaudible 00:03:02], this dead guy. I hate to tell you. I told you if we had gone to the library originally we wouldn’t have this problem.
So today in this show we’ll be exploring the relationship between history and video games in America.

Nathan Connolly: We’ll hear from the creator of Oregon Trail about the game that captivated a generation of schoolkids.

Ed Ayers: We’ll be learning about the phenomenon that is Red Dead Redemption 2 and its portrayal of the Old West.

Brian Balogh: And how the history of video games stretches back much farther than you might think.

Nathan Connolly: Now, the first exposure to American history-themed video games that many of us will remember is Oregon Trail, a game that could be found in American classrooms in the 1980s. In the game you took the role of a pioneer progressing across the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon, trying to avoid running out of food, being swept away by rivers, and definitely trying to avoid contracting dysentery. Philip Bouchard was the lead designer and team leader on the Apple II version of the Oregon Trail. I caught up with him to discuss a game which is still fondly remembered by millions.

Philip Bouchard: The product had already existed as a text-only game for quite a few years. A very simple game, but the basic principles had been established many years earlier. So I was handed the topic, but from there on I was given the opportunity to pursue it in any direction I wanted, to re-envision what this game could be. The one key thing I was told: make sure I don’t lose whatever magic made the original so popular.

Nathan Connolly: And what was that?

Philip Bouchard: The original text-only game had these seven attributes or features: you buy supplies in Independence, Oregon before you get started; along the way to Oregon you have the opportunity to hunt for food; you also have the opportunity to visit forts to buy supplies other than food; you must manage your levels of supplies all the way because if you run out of things you’ll die; your rate of travel will vary based upon current conditions like whether there’s a snow storm or whatever; number six, there are frequent misfortunes that happened along the way, random events that impede your progress; and finally number seven, there is two outcomes to this: either you’re going to reach Oregon or you’re going to die. Those were the seven concepts in the original game and those were brilliant.

Nathan Connolly: And so part of your intervention was actually about adding graphics to this text-based game, is that right?

Philip Bouchard: Absolutely, that was a given that there would be a lot of graphics included. I really wanted to use real geographic details. Working with a bigger environment and a bigger budget, I wanted to go with a lot richer set of choices.

Nathan Connolly: What was it about the idea of resource management that was really key to the game’s success for people?

Philip Bouchard: What are you going to need on this 2,000 mile journey? How many sets of clothing? How much food? In the original game you just had a list of supplies. In our version you would get to go into Matt’s General Store and so he can advise you on the different things that you’ll need to purchase before getting going. During the game it’s more subtle. If you break apart, if your wagon tongue or wagon wheel breaks and you haven’t purchased a spare then you’re just stuck. And in fact, it’s quite typical for a player who is playing for the first time just to skip the spare parts, and the first time they get stuck on the trail and unable to move because for lack of a spare part they say, “Okay, next time I play I’m buying spare parts.” So a lot of it has to do with the experience of playing the game more than once and you start learning how essential these different resources are.

Nathan Connolly: Well I got to tell you, Phil, when I was preparing for this I went and I rebooted the game and I started off as a carpenter, and I did pretty well, I got all the way to Oregon and I didn’t have anybody die along the way. Then I played a second time as a banker from Boston and before I got halfway through the trip, three of my companions had already been killed and I just gave up [inaudible 00:07:13]. So repetition didn’t help in my case. But I will say I do remember the mid-1980s as a time where you had games like Oregon Trail or, say, Lemonade Stand in conjunction with choose your own adventure fantasy books and the like. And all of this seems to be part of a moment where kids are learning about choices and their consequences in schools and through these educational platforms.
But the history kind of snuck in on me through the backdoor and I was really amazed actually at how much of the history from this most recent time playing it felt so grounded both in terms of the geography, in terms of the Native Americans that you’re encountering along the way. I mean you really did a tremendous amount to give a sense of authenticity to this environment, is that right?

Philip Bouchard: We pulled out quite a few different books, but the book that proved to be most useful was one that was entitled The Plains Across: The Overland Immigrants and the Trans-Mississippi West 1840 to 1860. And this book came out in ’79, so about five years before we started working on this version of the product.
One of my biggest regrets about things I had to leave out of the original is that I had originally intended a much richer set of interactions with Native Americans along the way. Not just Native Americans, also you might be able to interact with soldiers at the fort or traders and trappers and some immigrants who have wagons broken down. On the real Oregon Trail there were a number of opportunities to barter with Native Americans. We had so many more ideas that just never made it into the product. There was only so much we could fit on those little floppy disks.

Nathan Connolly: I do remember having to trade clothes for passage across one of the rivers, for sure.

Philip Bouchard: Oh, that was included, which was at the Snake River crossing. The Shoshone were experts in how to cross, so hiring a Shoshone guide would increase your odds of crossing.
We interviewed a number of kids who really enjoyed the original. The boys tended to love the original, the girls not so much. And then as we watched the boys, what they really loved was, for the most part, typing “bang” every time they had the opportunity to hunt. So I said, “Well, I would like to expand this so that it supports both genders, it supports different learning styles, people who like to investigate before making decisions, and also have multiple ways of getting through.” You can create a strategy that involves lots of hunting, that will work, or you can create a strategy that involves almost no hunting and still make it work if your other decisions are appropriate and support that main decision.
Well, it turns out one of the things that people thought about the most were the river crossings: are you going to need to take a ferry, are you going into [inaudible 00:10:06] the river, are you going to try to caulk your wagon and float it across? The key to this making it really interesting though was that we created an animation that illustrated the result – I have chosen to float my wagon across and now I get to see the wagon floating across, and I don’t know if it’s going to tip over in the middle or make it all the way across. And the kids loved watching that animation and were sitting on the edge of their seat to see, “Am I going to make it or not?”

Nathan Connolly: That happened to me, my wagon tipped and I was devastated. So Phil, the fate that travelers encounter often times on these Oregon Trails can be many, right? Die of fever, your wagon can tip over, you lose [inaudible 00:10:42]. But the phrase, “You have died of dysentery,” has carried a certain kind of pop culture resonance well beyond the game. Where did that come from?

Philip Bouchard: Well, it’s based on something that I designed into the game and yet is a slight corruption of it, interestingly enough. I was looking at these different diaries and I was noticing what phrases people used in terms of what people were contracting along the way. And I took five of the most common terms, they were often used for what people would sick of. So it would say, “Zeke has dysentery,” or “Sarah has fever.” And then later on if the person is not recovered you may see, “Zeke has died.” Nowhere in the game does it actually say, “You have died of dysentery”.

Nathan Connolly: But the idea, I guess, of the dangers of frontier travel, of these are the kinds of things that can kill you out there.

Philip Bouchard: Right. However, I had no anticipation that that particular one, that dysentery, would be the one that would become the meme.

Nathan Connolly: So given the chaos of the frontier it almost feels like there’s no real way to avoid having calamity or having some near death experience on the Oregon Trail. I mean is there any hack or key balancing act that one can pull off, say at the point where they’re buying their resources or which road they should take when there is a fork, to really make sure that they fare best in the Oregon Trail outcomes?

Philip Bouchard: Maintaining your health makes a big difference. If your health declines to poor then everybody is much more likely to contract diseases.

Nathan Connolly: Should they rest? Is that the idea?

Philip Bouchard: That is a good one. I’ve seen people play it 10 times in a row and never rest ones. Or it’s just slowing your pace a bit. Also if you eat more food then you’re likely to stay healthier, but of course now you run the risk of running out of food.

Nathan Connolly: These feel like life hacks, Phil, this is how you survive life and make it more enjoyable – more resting, more food, take your time. I can dig it, I can dig it.
What do you think are some of the best things about historical gaming that we should preserve?

Philip Bouchard: If you’re creating any kind of role-playing game then you are immersing the player into a historical context. So you’re learning by experiencing. So we can judge the product on that level as how good of an environment have we create? Number two, now we’ve put the player into this environment. Are we actually giving them meaningful decisions? Are these decisions relevant to what real people in that time would have had to face? And number three is exposure to factual information. Number four now, the game should be highly engaging. And indeed that is one of the most powerful aspects of the game. If it is engaging then the student or player is staying alert. Does the player remain engaged with the topic after putting the game aside? They may look up things on their own, they may turn to other students and say, “Hey, what did you do when you got to this place?” And final thing is that a good historical game should provide mental anchors for additional learning. So kids that play Oregon Trail might say, “Oh, Chimney Rock, I’ve heard of that,” or just the whole experience of going to Oregon may be more meaningful because now they’ve experienced it.

Nathan Connolly: In your own life after working on Oregon Trail, did it become an anchor for you to continue to do reading about westward expansion or did it fan your love of history?

Philip Bouchard: Oh absolutely, yes. To me this was equal parts geography and history. I’m a real geography buff, I love to make note of where I’m going and the routes I’m taking. And I still have not yet tried to follow the Oregon Trail but I definitely want to do that some day.

Nathan Connolly: Excellent. Don’t die of dysentery, please.
I was talking to the game’s designer Philip Bouchard about Oregon Trail.