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The Oregon Trail game taught me an important life lesson

Stephanie CarmichaelJune 8, 2016

Guest post contributed by Classcraft Ambassador Joshua Ducharme, M. Ed

Computer labs today are chock-full of computers that have amazing processors, LCD/LED monitors, Bluetooth capabilities, etc. … you get the idea. Although I must admit I get frustrated when my Internet page does not load fast enough that I can’t help but reminisce on my humble beginnings.

When I think back to 4th and 5th grade, I remember a myriad of fun things we did and how amazing my teachers were. But the most exciting part of my younger elementary days was when we had computer lab—a small, 45-minute window to step into another reality. Fill the flux capacitor because we’re about to go back to the future.

Oregon Trail became more than a game to the class.

Before my early 1990s nostalgic journey begins, I feel the need to set the stage so you get an idea of what my experience was. We filed out of the classroom two days a week and walked to the bus. That’s right—a big, huge computer bus. It was literally an old school bus where the seats were taken out, and they had both sides of the bus lined with computers. No air conditioning, no Wi-Fi, no Internet for that matter.

So why was I so happy to get onto this bus? Two words: Oregon Trail. Oregon Trail was a game that taught students about pioneer life back in the mid 1800s. In this gem of a game, you control a covered wagon starting from Independence, Missouri, and proceed along a 2,000-mile trail to Oregon. Throughout your journey, you are faced with various catastrophes: cholera, typhoid fever, your oxen drowning, winter, and perhaps worst of all, shooting 1,000 pounds of buffalo meat but only being able to carry 200 pounds back to the wagon.

Many times in the game, I would either die or simply not be able to finish the game within the 45 minutes of time we had. So what kept me coming back? I mean, let’s be real, the game’s graphics were I think 6-bit, and we actually loaded it on a floppy disk (some of you know what I’m talking about). What fascinated me was the challenge. It was the idea that I could try over and over again until I figured it out.

Oregon Trail became more than a game to the class. It became the catalyst in fostering discussion among my classmates about how we could work together to overcome its challenges. In the process, we were learning about pioneer life. More importantly (and I didn’t see this at the time), we learned a lot of life’s lessons from this simple game.

No matter how much you plan or how prepared you think you might be, you’re going to run into some tough situations.

You figure out pretty quickly that anything that can go wrong probably will. As I reflect later in my life and in my teaching profession, I have come to this conclusion: No matter how much you plan or how prepared you think you might be, you’re going to run into some tough situations. Many times in the game, I would die within the first 10 minutes. So this leaves you with two options with your students in how you approach learning:

Don’t play: There won’t be any fun, but you won’t have to worry about what could go wrong or how you could fail.

Play: Accept that life isn’t always fair. You might fail, but have a great time figuring out how to succeed.

It’s a great lesson to teach our students that failure leads to success, and as the mighty words of Bruce Wayne ring, “We fail so we can learn to pick ourselves up.” The lesson to give to your students is this: When your wagon falls apart, fix that broken wheel, dust off your britches, and get back on life’s trail.

Share your ideas: What’s your favorite game that you played in the classroom?

Joshua Ducharme has been a 2nd grade teacher and is currently a fifth grade teacher at Literacy First Charter School in El Cajon, California. He has been teaching for a total of nine years and is always looking for new and innovative ways to bring the classroom to life. He also regularly consults schools and teachers in many areas including divergent thinking, brain-based learning, and gamification.

Photo credit: Sharon Freeman /