Oregon Trail Live

November 10th, 2014 9:42 AM
Filed under Game trail, Mainstream coverage;
Comments Off on Oregon Trail Live

At KansasFest 2014, I brought a text adventure to life, courtesy Parsely. It was an interactive, real-world, technology-free experience based on Apple II games of the 1970s — and it wasn't the first or only such game to get such a treatment.

Oregon Trail, that classic edutainment title of frontier survival, has since 2012 been leaping off the screen to educate us about the hardship of early America. Adapted by Kelly Williams Brown, Oregon Trail Live is played not in schools, but by visitors to the Willamette Heritage Center of Salem, Oregon. Emily Grosvenor writes for The Atlantic:

Oregon Trail LiveOn the trail, as in the game, if you killed a bison, you could only carry 200 pounds of meat with you. In the live-action game, participants face the task of pushing 200 pounds of meat up a hill—in this case, a 200 pound man in a wagon regaling the crowd with meat facts. In our case, it was a local butcher dressed like a cow, who later tested us on the names of cuts of a side of beef.

At every turn the live action game converts the computerized saga into a real life obstacle. Die on the real trail—and 50 percent of travelers did in the trail's first years—and you're good ole dead. Perish in the computer game—of dysentery, cannibalism, drowning, cholera, typhoid, measles, or snakebite—and you get to see your own epitaph. Kick it in the live—action game and your friends must compose a dirge to sing at your funeral.

Grosvenor's additional photos from the event make it look like a ton of fun, with players creating characters, inhabiting roles, and working toward a common goal. Although she doesn't use the term, this take on Oregon Trail could be considered a LARP — a Live-Action Role-Playing Game. LARPs are normally associate with Dungeons & Dragons-style settings, as most humorously demonstrated in the film Knights of Badassdom, but it's not a stretch to see similar characteristics manifesting itself in Oregon Trail. What's next — a reality TV series, equipping contestants with little more than a covered wagon and some mules with which to survive a cross-country trek?

Grosvenor's coverage is of the most recent Oregon Trail Live, an annual event, with the fourth OTL to be held Saturday, September 19, 2015. Can't wait until then? Other Oregon Trail adaptations abound, including a trailer for a feature-length movie. Sadly, a full movie was never intended to be completed, but The Homesman, opening in theaters November 14 and starring Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones, looks to come close to the idea:

(Hat tip to Christopher Curley)

The evolution of classroom tech

June 9th, 2014 8:53 AM
Filed under History;
Comments Off on The evolution of classroom tech

The Apple II long had a role in education, with a library of edutainment software that included Oregon Trail, Number Munchers, and Scholastic Microzine. So it's only fitting that it features prominently in the first decade of the Washington Post's reflection on the evolution of classroom technology:

From the article:

The Apple II computer—in all its gray boxiness—was introduced. Aggressive marketing and volume discounts made it popular in schools. The landmark, garage-built computers, which retailed for $1,295, were the first Apples to use full color graphics—for a simple reason: Designer Steve Wozniak wanted to be able to play Breakout on the machine, and that original game ran in color.

The mid-‘80s ushered in an era of educational computer games. Oregon Trail taught kids about the harsh realities of life as a 19th century pioneer, dysentery and all (and it’s still around today, though children of the ’80s and ’90s would hardly recognize it). Mavis Beacon taught typing—fast. Carmen Sandiego tried to pique kids’ interest in geography. And Number Munchers aimed to get children excited about multiplication and division.

From the video, you might think the Apple II was obsolete by the time the 1990s rolled around. But this early computer continues to educate today's youth, whether as a programming tool, a museum piece, or a study in game design.

Let's Play Death in the Caribbean

April 7th, 2014 11:39 AM
Filed under Game trail;
Comments Off on Let's Play Death in the Caribbean

This winter, I launched a Google+ page for my YouTube gaming channel. As I began exploring the gaming communities on this social network, I discovered Leigh Alexander, a Gamasutra editor with a large following. She is an accomplished fiction author and columnist, and I've now enjoyed her writing for some time. But when she chose to expand into video, I was pleasantly surprised by the subject that a journalist on the cutting edge of technology would choose for her YouTube debut.

Alexander's first foray into video is a Let's Play of the Apple II game, Death in the Caribbean:

A "Let's Play" is a video game walkthrough with commentary that focuses on the player's experience, instead being a tutorial that provides strategy (though it can do that, too). Alexander follows through with that promise, having grown up playing this game with her father. On a recent return to her parents' home in Massachusetts (hey, that's where I live!), she recorded this video that reflects not only on how the game expanded her vocabulary with words such as "crevasse" and "brazier", but on other lessons: "[Death in the Caribbean] taught me from an early age that disaster can happen anywhere, at anytime. Even if the whole world sprawls out in front of you like a beautiful place ready to be explored — you can die, just by being a little bit wrong" — something you're never too young to learn.

The launch of Apple II Bits in 2010 coincided with my discovery of Let's Plays, at which time the genre was relatively unknown. I imagined myself being one of the first to bring this video format to the Apple II. While I've since recorded dozens of Let's Play videos of Nintendo games, I've never executed on the idea to apply that experience to my favorite retrocomputer.

Four years later, Let's Plays are booming, with no less prestigious an outlet than The Atlantic giving the issue coverage, detailing how PewDiePie, the most popular channel on YouTube, makes millions of dollars a year producing Let's Play videos. If you're baffled why Let's Plays are so popular, Jamin Warren of PBS Digital Studios explains the appeal of Let's Play videos:

Between the proliferation of Let's Plays and the age of the Apple II, you might think, what more remains to be said about our favorite games? Plenty, reminded one of my YouTube followers. "I hate it when people who LP an older game and say 'I have nothing original to contribute'," commented Gaming Media. "YES YOU DO! If you grew up with the game, you have stories about the game that no one else has."

Even those who didn't grow up with a game can still provide unique commentary. As Alexander did, Gaming Media recently turned to Virtual Apple ][ and recorded a Let's Play of Oregon Trail, a game that came out decades before he did:

(Skip to 4:52 into the first video for a fun blatant plug!)

Neither of these recent videos is the first Let's Play to come from the Apple II: Jesse Hamm recorded his own playthrough of Death in the Caribbean three years ago; Brian Picchi has recorded reviews of games like Gold Rush! that could be considered Let's Plays; and I in turn recorded a similar hybrid video of Picchi's Retro Fever, a year after unboxing and playing Zéphyr.

There indeed remains much to be preserved, shared, and experienced of the Apple II on YouTube. I hope that Alexander, Gaming Media, Picchi, and I continue to find the time and enthusiasm to explore this fun intersection of old and new media. What games would you like to see us play next?

Dead Man's Oregon Trail

March 24th, 2014 11:53 AM
Filed under Game trail;
Comments Off on Dead Man's Oregon Trail

The gaming industry is currently experiencing the popularity of three trends: indie studios, retrogaming, and zombies. All three converge in in an upcoming remake of Oregon Trail in which you travel across the country through hordes of undead.

Wait — didn't I already write that blog post? Three years ago, I was playing Organ Trail, a free browser game that later held a successful Kickstarter to release a director's cut edition on Mac, Windows, Linux, iOS, Android, and Ouya.

So what's new in 2014? Dead Man's Trail, a modern action/resource management game inpsired by Oregon Trail. Development studio E4 Software is aware of the precedent of Organ Trail and is taking their game in a different direction:

We're very aware of the existence of Organ Trail and are actually very big fans of the game. We were in early planning stages when Director's Cut came out but decided to move ahead with DMT anyway because we had ideas for things that differentiated us from Organ Trail, such as giving each party member a specific role, having procedurally generated 3D looting levels, having one resource perform several different functions (bullets are ammo and currency), etc.

Where Organ Trail elicits its charm from using mechanics and presentation elements from the original, think of ours as an expanded follow up that wants to go beyond the original Oregon Trail to create a Walking Dead/World War Z atmosphere. We're hoping that several years on from the release of Organ Trail, fans of that project will see our game and want to play it as a next step.

I'm excited to see a game that offers more customization than the traditional Oregon Trail format — most notably, characters with unique skills, such as firearms expert, paramedic, and mechanic (think Left 4 Dead); and different vehicles. If you had to plow through a sea of zombies, would you do so in a station wagon? No way! Give me a school bus or 18-wheeler… and leave me to be concerned about fuel economy after we break down in the middle of nowhere.

The looting element of the game is where Dead Man's Trail most notably diverges from the Oregon Trail formula. Although inspired by the original game's hunting sequences, looting occurs in urban settings from a 3D, isometric perspective. It's not an experience I looking forward to grappling with on a mobile device's tiny screen.

Whereas Organ Trail kept much of Oregon Trail's gameplay and aesthetic, Dead Man's Trail is potentially much more ambitious. Correspondingly, Organ Trail needed only the realistic sum of $3,000 in crowdfunding, whereas DMT is asking for $50,000 on Kickstarter.

Dead Man's Trail is halfway through its one-month crowdfunding campaign and has raised less than 5% of its goal. The game is far enough along that it will likely see release one way or another, but Kickstarter will help ensure the final product is timely and true to the creators' vision. If all goes well, we'll see Dead Man's Trail hit Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, and iOS this October.

Internet Explorer on the Oregon Trail

February 4th, 2013 10:46 AM
Filed under Game trail;
Comments Off on Internet Explorer on the Oregon Trail

Although Web browsers are far more standardized in their interpretation of HTML than they were in the first decade of the World Wide Web, the "browser wars" for market share continue. For users who want more than the default browser their operating system comes with, the choices are plenty: Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Camino, Lynx, and more are still actively developed.

Of those, Microsoft's Internet Explorer has perhaps the worst reputation — even though, thanks to the support of such a commercial juggernaut, it may outlast its competition. Despite that, it struggles to remain relevant in the eyes of tech-savvy consumers who remember the days of IE6 — or, worse, those employees whose corporate policies have them continuing to use outdated, unsupported versions of IE.

Knowing this, Microsoft began a campaign of gentle self-mockery, running commercials that poked fun at the browser's history, calling it "The Browser You Loved To Hate". The first video showcased the estranged relationship a long-time user had with his browser; its follow-up focused on retraining a traditional Internet troll. The latest empathizes with its target demographic by saying, "Hey, we're a product of the same era you are."

I showed this commercial to a class of college juniors and seniors who were born no earlier than 1990. They got almost all the references, even the one that spoke to my generation: Oregon Trail. These students may not have had that experience on the Apple II as I did, but it is nonetheless a franchise that was born on the Apple II that has influenced the education of many.

It's remarkable that, for literally decades, students have grown up dying of dysentery. Hats off to Microsoft for acknowledging the cultural relevance the Apple II has for the first generations of personal computer users.

(Hat tip to Alex Knapp)

Know Your KansasFest Meme

September 10th, 2012 11:31 AM
Filed under Musings;
Comments Off on Know Your KansasFest Meme

The crux of KansasFest are the daytime sessions that educate attendees on a variety of important topics. At KansasFests 2010 & 2011, I filled gaps in the schedule with "Know Your Meme", a session that introduced the audience to pop culture phenomena that have appeared and spread throughout the Internet. The 2010 session featured such wonders as "Double Rainbow" and "Old Spice Guy", whereas 2011 presented a more coherent narrative that deftly wove together Keyboard Cat, Nyan Cat, and "Can't Hug Every Cat" into one (in)coherent package.

Besides the tradition of this session, I've also emceed KansasFest's annual Friday night banquet, which historically has been a roast but lately has evolved to provide a variety of entertainment. The memeification of KansasFest began in 2009 with the presentation of LOLgeeks:

LOLgeek: Paul Zaleski

This year, we again united our memes and banquet. The hit of the evening came from Steve Weyhrich, who was celebrating his first KansasFest as a member of the event's steering committee. Steve presented a montage of opening sequences for CSI: KFest, with Steve in the role of Horatio Caine:

My own contributions were "Strutting Leo Comes to KansasFest" and an iPhoto-inspired take on "Totally Looks Like":

Totally Looks Like

It's the beard.

But the centerpiece was supposed to be a spoof of the (in)famous song "Call Me Maybe" by Carly Rae Jepsen:

This video has been remixed using footage of many individuals — everyone from Barack Obama to Lt. Commander Data. So I spent the week at KansasFest shooting other attendees and splicing their clips together. The result hasn't been published online because it wasn't as impressive as I'd hoped, which I blame on my shooting and editing skills.

But again, Steve has saved the day, finding some nugget of value in my efforts. He recently came across this Carly Rae Jepsen–Apple II mash-up — which, for some reason, did not want to post this on his own site! I instead offer it here:

Oregon Trail Crazy

Ah, Oregon Trail — is there anything it can't do?