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'You have died of dysentery': Oregon Trail game designer invited to Scotts Bluff National Monument

'You have died of dysentery': Oregon Trail game designer invited to Scotts Bluff National Monument

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GERING — "You have died of dysentery." If you know this phrase, then you have probably also spent countless hours trying to keep your group together and safe as they made their way across the Oregon Trail. The game, which has been played by millions of Gen Xers, Millennials and even Baby Boomers, has always been one of fun, education and skill.

“The Oregon Trail: the Game vs. Real Life,” presented by Philip Bouchard, lead designer of the game, is an interactive, educational program about the iconic 1980s “The Oregon Trail” computer game and its similarities (and differences) to life on the real Oregon Trail.

National Park Ranger Kayla Gasker remembered playing the “Oregon Trail” game in computer class and how popular it was in and out of school. She thought about the fact that 2019 is the centennial of Scotts Bluff National Monument and wanted to bring the two together for a fun event.

“This iconic computer game is embedded in people’s lives and memories and I wanted to be able to find a way to share that,” Gasker said. “What better way than to find the person who created it?”

After searching the internet, Gasker came across R. Philip Bouchard’s website. There she learned he also wrote a digital book, “You Have Died of Dysentery.” She invited him to the monument, which isn’t in the game, Chimney Rock National Historic Site is, and he was happy to come for a visit.

“He is looking forward to coming here and share how much research went into making sure the game was educational,” Gasker said. “He wanted it to be accurate so that images children saw on the screen were something you could see in a William Henry Jackson painting.”

Jackson painted many images along the trail and the monument houses the largest collection of his works in the nation.

In the game, you play the role of a pioneer following the Oregon Trail across the American West in 1847. You are the head of a family or group of five people and you must purchase important supplies in Independence, Missouri, before heading off on a five-month, 2,000-mile journey west. In the spring, you begin your journey, driving a wagon pulled by a team of oxen, he said.

“Along the way, you have to make many decisions to ensure the survival of your group,” he said. “There are lots of challenges, such as crossing dangerous rivers, repairing broken parts, and ensuring that you always have food to eat.”

Along the way, you can stop to hunt or visit an occasional fort to purchase food and supplies. There are also people that you meet at each of the locations along the way, he said.

“If you consistently make good decisions and luck is with you, then you and your party will eventually arrive in Oregon, safe and healthy and ready to begin a new life,” Bouchard said.

Bouchard was the lead designer and project leader of the 1985 Apple II version of “The Oregon Trail,” which is often called the “original" version of the game. Bouchard said that is not true.

“It was preceded by a simple, but popular, text-only game in the 1970s,” he said. “In 1984, I was given the assignment of completely reinventing the game from scratch, greatly expanding the concepts and the gameplay — and incorporating color graphics.”

MECC (The Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation) published the new game in 1985, and released an identical version for the IBM in 1990. In 1995, MECC released "The Oregon Trail II," which took the concepts of Bouchard’s design and further expanded upon them.

The original text-only game in the 1970s did not mention any geographical features along the route of the Oregon Trail. It only indicated the player’s mileage after every two weeks of travel. When Bouchard re-envisioned the game, he decided the inclusion of real geography to be a top priority. He decided to divide the route into about 16 segments. Those segments were the beginning and ending of an important landmark or feature. Bouchard said the few forts along the route, such as Fort Kearney and Fort Laramie, were obvious inclusions. Of the two dozen important river crossings, he chose four to represent the river crossing experience. This was a new feature in his design.

Bouchard now had half the segment endpoints he needed. He made a list of other noteworthy landmarks emigrants would encounter along the trail. As with the river crossings, the full list of candidate landmarks was too long to include. One of Bouchard’s criteria was to select landmarks that were widely spaced.

“Chimney Rock was one of the most famous of all, and therefore an obligatory inclusion,” he said. “I eventually decided that Scotts Bluff and Courthouse Rock were both too close to Chimney Rock for me to include them in the game.”

Bouchard “swung for the fences” with his project. MECC only published two dozen new products each year. MECC was successful in the school market, but not in the home market. Bouchard was told to design a product that would be its first hit.

“To fully cover the bases, I made sure that the design would work in both the home and school markets,” he said. “I was a bit surprised that we actually exceeded the goal, becoming the most famous educational software product of the time.”

Bouchard expected the fame to be short-lived, but people are still talking about “The Oregon Trail” game.

Bouchard will give two presentations at the Gering Civic Center. Gasker has seen a preview of the program and describes it as incredible and assures that attendees will learn new things.

“You’re going to see side-by-side how the game and the real trail are a lot alike,” she said. “He will talk about the similarities and differences between the game and real life.”

In addition to the presentation, there will be raffles and door prizes at each program.

Gasker believes the memes about the game, which has spread around the world, not only has humor, but brings attention to the death of those traveling on the trail.

“A great number of memes about the Oregon Trail are popular on the internet, and all of these memes are drawn from the 1985 Apple II version (or its 1990 IBM clone),” Bouchard said. “Back in 1984 and 1985, as we debated what features to include in the product and how to present those features, we had no idea our decisions would result in popular memes 35 years later.”

The presentation will be Friday, June 7, at 6:30 p.m., and Saturday, June 8, at 10:30 a.m. at the Gering Civic Center. Both events are free to the public.

During the Friday program, Great Plains Distillery will have drink samples featuring their Landmark Whiskey and Vamoose Vodka for those of legal drinking age.

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