In the 50 years since the original “The Oregon Trail” video game was released in 1971, generations of schoolchildren have tried to survive the treacherous 2,170-mile route.
For many, it was a fun lesson on the mid-19th century westward migration as they played the role of pioneers crossing dangerous rivers and hoping not to die of dysentery.
But for Margaret Huettl and other Native Americans, the childhood game told a frustrating and incomplete story. They felt that it ignored how their ancestors were pushed out of their homelands and forced into oppressive treaties.
“None of that history was ever included in the games or my education,” said Huettl, a Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe descendant. “I knew there were other stories out there.”
Some of those stories are now being told in a new version of the game released in April by mobile game developer Gameloft. Huettl, now a University of Nebraska-Lincoln assistant professor of history and ethnic studies, worked with the company on the remake, which is available on Apple’s subscription gaming service, Apple Arcade.
“In a way, I think it kind of gave us an advantage,” said Trudgen, a 44-year-old Australian. “We didn’t have any preconceptions. We just did a lot of research.”
Trudgen and his team of about 30 developers reached out to Huettl and scholars from other universities. In addition to providing historical documents and input on styles specific to each tribe, the scholars worked with the development team to craft a message emphasizing the migration’s harmful effects on Native Americans. That message can be found as soon as a player starts on a new journey.
In part, the message says, “For Indigenous Peoples, westward expansion was not an adventure but an invasion.”
Trudgen said his team also worked to include Black characters such as Moses Harris, a trapper who helped rescue a wagon train in 1845.
“I had never heard (about Harris) before,” Trudgen said. “We thought he was an interesting character.”
Players encounter Harris during the game’s prologue when he rescues the player’s party east of Independence, Missouri.