Herald Journal Columns
Feb. 13, 2006, Herald Journal

Happy trails to Oregon

By LIZ HELLMANN

Pop!

Whirrrrrrr!

I anxiously wait as my computer boots up. It only takes a few minutes before the black screen is filled with a picture of a Conestoga wagon.

The pixels that make up the picture rival the size of a dime.

But I don’t care. To me, the most amazing part is that the oxen pulling the wagon can actually appear as if they are moving.

It’s 1993, and I arrived at school just early enough to play two rounds of the Oregon Trail, one of the greatest games in history.

To a rural school girl, it showcased the most fascinating technology since the VCR.

The point of the game was to safely navigate the Oregon Trail as the pioneers would have done. You got to pick up supplies, load your wagon, trade for food or animals, and choose your routes.

All this you could do against the black background, with rows of white letters explaining your group’s status. (Just picture that old C prompt screen, you know the one.)

As you went along your merry way, the computer actually “talked” to you through messages, such as “morale is low,” “doctor needed, you accidently severed Jack’s hand while chopping wood – he was the only one who could shoot straight,” or “A herd of buffalo breaks Uncle Bill’s spectacles – he was the only one who could read in the group.”

OK, so maybe I wasn’t very good at the game, but it was fun.

Growing up in the middle of the technological revolution, my generation has watched with awe as comparatively crude computer games, like Oregon Trail, have given way to more sophisticated graphics.

I know what you are thinking, what can be more sophisticated then a disjointed, flickering picture of a floating wagon bobbing across the screen in a blue blob, representing a river?

(I knew I shouldn’t have tried to cross the 5-foot-deep river with only two oxen and a mule. Dang it! Grandma caught the influenza!)

But honestly, I was completely content with my Oregon Trail game, elementary as it may seem today.

It wasn’t just me, though. Ask anyone from my generation and they will proudly remember the Oregon Trail game.

In fact, it was always a fight to see who would get to the computer first during free-time.

Now, there are millions of computer games, movies, and video games, that would put my Oregon Trail game to shame.

Graphics that depict characters who look like they could walk right out of the screen, pick up my old computer screen and wagon picture, and throw it out the window.

(That, of course, only applies to the strongest game characters, because the screen that I used to play the Oregon Trail probably weighed the same as I did.)

I look back on that time when Oregon Trail was in its hey day the same way some of you might look back at the time before colored TV.

It was a simpler time.

There weren’t so many games to choose from. It was if the Oregon Trail brought us all together.

There weren’t virtual Barbie dress- up games for girls, or amazing Ninja street fighter games for boys.

We all gathered around the gender-neutral, all-appealing Oregon Trail.

But there are so many games to choose from now, groups are splintered even more.

The athletic ones boast their latest scores on games like the ultimate baseball showdown XDT (which is so life-like you can pick which steriod to put your player on.) They compare statistics of each major player and show off their “controller-finger” injuries.

“Oh, man, I punched the keyboard so hard on that one, I snagged a hangnail!”

The brainiacs in the class can brush up with chess master deluxe, now featuring living pieces.

And then, there is the violence level.

Modern games feature wars, robberies, prostitution, and car theft.

In these games, children actually practice shooting at other people. They choose their weapon and ammunition.

They watch as realistic-looking people fall to the ground and blood spurts from their heads and chests.

Mmmmm. I wonder why we have a problem with violence in children. How could they possibly get the wrong idea?

“No, Billy. Put the gun down. Not at the dinner table. You can practice shooting people in the other room later. Now, eat your vegetables.”

Don’t get me wrong, the Oregon Trail was rough and tumble in its own way.

Being a pioneer, accidents happened. If you went hunting too long, a message would pop up that someone was shot in your party.

However, there was no graphic of this, and we weren’t aiming at people!

But maybe the notion of games that don’t aim to kill and destroy other humans is too old-fashioned.

I just feel sorry for the people who are too young to remember a time before Blackberries.

(If you don’t know what those are, don’t worry, you’re not in danger of falling into that category.)

Watching computers and games evolve has been an interesting and unique treat for my generation.

Years from now, we will be able to laugh about a time when “laptop,” meant you typed with your keyboard on your lap, not on the desk next to your 3-foot-deep screen.

Those who have grown up with a plethora of games and gadgets at their fingertips will never really be able to understand the excitement of waiting three minutes to see a C:> welcoming them to the Oregon Trail.


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