How Many Oxen Does One Really Need?

With the release of that gorgeous library of MS-DOS games brought to you by the Internet Archive, how could I not jump on writing about that greatest day in Computer Class –   Oregon Trail Day?

Unlike almost every other game in school, I loved computer games, not because I was necessarily good at them, but because they suited my introverted self. Unlike gym class, because gym class was about sports. I didn’t care about sports; I didn’t know any of the rules. My father wasn’t particularly athletic and my mom hated sports after growing up with four competitive brothers, so gym class was utter torture for me. Not because of physical activity required, despite popular belief, but because I had no fucking clue what these games where, even though everybody else seemed to be born with that knowledge. Usually I was so worried about not doing the right thing, I would panic and freeze. It was publicly humiliating. So as I got older, I developed the “Daria Defense:” I just acted like I didn’t care. It was easier to handle than admitting in front of 30 of my peers that I didn’t know how to hold a bat, or throw a football, or catch… anything.

Computer class was a glorious reprieve from classroom anxiety. If I didn’t understand something, I was free to fail and try again without anyone being the wiser. I could take my time studying the screen, experimenting with keys, maybe slyly observing my neighbors and learning from them. Playing Oregon Trail was amazing because I could play it on my own.

Elementary-level computer classes were interesting in the early 90s. When I was very young, the Catholic school I attended had several computers crammed into what looked like a custodial closet with a window. We were two or three to a computer, taking turns with the different typing programs.

When I started public school, the computer room was a bit more established. There was typically a computer for each student. While most classes were full of typing (which I loved and was very good at), occasionally we would play games.

Oregon Trail day was the best day in computer class. When the teacher gave us the go-ahead, the whole room would buzz with excitement. “Are you gonna be a banker?” “Duh. Bankers are rich!” “I’m naming one of my people after you!” “Why do we need so many ox?”

When the energy came down to a dull hum, everyone was deep into the trail. I always liked the rivers, for some reason. Holding my breath, waiting to see if my little wagon would make it across… oh, the drama. Though, I did get a little disheartened when I named my people after my family, and then they died.

I also remember a game similar to Oregon Trail, but more complex and it took place in the Australian Outback. You could look for food, and determine whether fruit was safe or poisonous… but I have no idea what it was called… Outback Trail…? I don’t know.

For me, the funny thing about The Oregon Trail being available now is that… it’s kind of boring. And that’s a rare reaction for me. I usually live in nostalgia. But I guess I just didn’t have that strong of a connection to this specific game. Now, Sega games like Sonic 2, Castle of Illusions, or Aladdin? Those I’ll play for days.

Still, it’s great to have access to The Oregon Trail now, even if I only have a mild emotional attachment. I mean, where else would I have learned about dysentery? Oh, wait! Mrs. Doubtfire! …. Huh.