A literary Oregon Trail

June 27th, 2016 11:07 PM
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Oregon Trail has been adapted, reimagined, and rebooted more times than we can count. It's become a live-action role-playing game, a movie trailer, and a zombie apocalypse. But at no point has the real-life journey of American pioneers circa 1836 been recreated — until now.

The Oregon Trail is a hardcover book released last summer, with the paperback hitting just this month on June 7. With a title like that, I assumed it to be an ode to the computer game that introduced a generation of students to personal computers. But this book — the fifth from Rinker Buck, born in 1950 — is something far more daring. Here's an Amazon.com synopsis from Jon Foro:

Well into middle-age, Rinker Buck found himself divorced, at the edge of bankruptcy, and growing blunt through the twin demons of ennui and alcohol … On a whim, he found himself in a museum at the head of the Oregon Trail, realizing that even as a fairly serious American history buff, he knew virtually nothing about the pivotal era when 400,000 pioneers made their way West in quests for land, gold, and new lives. On a much bigger whim, Buck decided to travel the 2,000 miles of ruts and superseding highways in a mule-driven wagon on his own “crazyass” quest for a new beginning. The result is a dense-yet-entertaining mix of memoir, history and adventure, as Buck– joined by another brother, Nick, and his “incurably filthy” dog, Olive Oyl–struggle with the mechanical, environmental, and existential challenges posed by such an unusually grueling journey. Buck is an engaging writer, and while the book pushes 500 pages, the story never lags. By the end, you’ll know more about mules than you ever thought you would (just enough, actually), and you’ll have a better perspective on the Trail, its travelers, and the role it played in shaping the modern United States. (And is Rinker Buck not a pioneer-worthy name for an tale such as this?)

The book is available now on Amazon.com. Here's an excerpt of the author reading from the audiobook:

I'm not a huge fan of history, but The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey hits a sweet spot by intersecting with real and digital history. Even if the book never once mentions the game, I may need to pick it up to see what Buck's experience was and how it compares to that of the early settlers after two hundred years.

Apple Games Done Quick

July 27th, 2015 8:41 AM
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This month at KansasFest, I gave attendees a crash course in two genres of YouTube gaming videos: unboxings and Let's Plays. There's yet another genre that I have no participatory experience with but am nonetheless in awe of: speedruns.

A speedrun is an attempt to finish a game as quickly as possible without using any external cheats — by which I mean emulation, ROM hacking, Game Genies, or other devices. What is allowed are exploitation and manipulation of glitches (intentional or otherwise) within the game. This approach can allow the Super Nintendo game Super Mario World to be finished in under five minutes — even though the programmers never intended it, they nonetheless laid the groundwork for their game to be abused in this fashion.

Speedruns are extraordinary for the players' intimate knowledge of the game. They've memorized minutia and can predict likely outcomes, demonstrating a depth of mastery that few casual or even hardcore gamers can ever hope to achieve. Unlike unboxings or Let's Plays, which are done for fun or profit, speedruns are highly competitive, even if the player is challenging only himself to shave a second or two of world record.

When it comes to organization Games Done Quick, that competitive force is used for good. Their twice-annual events — Awesome Games Done Quick and Summer Games Done Quick — are video game marathons that raise money for charity. Players — as many as 150 — congregate in a single location and stream their speedrun trials, encouraging viewers to donate to various non-profits. For SGDQ15, which began yesterday in St. Paul, Minnesota, and runs through August 1, the charity is Doctors Without Borders.

That's all well and good — but where's the Apple II connection? The answer to that question comes at 6:45 AM CDT this Thursday, July 30, on the speedrun schedule. At that wee hour, under the subcategory of "Silly Games Done Quick", runners will be playing Oregon Trail. Confirmed Facebook user Cat Morgan: "Yes, they are hoping to do it on an Apple — they are waiting for the hardware to arrive to test it with their streaming rig." Their intended completion time is a mere 15 minutes — which should be feasible, given that a tool-assisted speedrun uploaded to YouTube just this month shows the game being completed in 8:24.63:

The hardware and software demonstrated in my Let's Play tutorial opens the door for many more Apple II speedruns. Maybe you'll be the next gamer whose retrocomputing will help Games Done Quick raise money for a good cause!

UPDATE (Aug 1, 2015): A YouTube record of the #SGDQ15 speedrun of Oregon Trail is now online:

9 myths about the Oregon Trail

March 16th, 2015 10:15 AM
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At a recent PAX East 2015 panel on empathy games, I asked: "Since empathy games are often based in reality, do developers of such games hold themselves to a higher standard in terms of being authentic — as opposed to a more fictional game world, which doesn't purport to represent a real-life situation?"

Perhaps it was unfair of me to suggest empathy games are alone in this higher standard, as games have been founded in reality for as long as there have been games. Oregon Trail was based on a 2,200-mile route travelled by 400,000 settlers in 1846–1869. No work of fiction, the game is the product of some serious research and was widely used in classrooms as an early form of edutainment.

But, like many grade-school history lessons, some of the details weren't quite right. Phil Edwards recently did some historical research of his own and determined 9 myths you learned from playing Oregon Trail. The article is a fun and fascinating read, with far more details than these succinct headlines:

  1. Not everyone used oxen. Some people used handcarts.
  2. Traveling at a "grueling" pace was less fun than it sounds
  3. You wouldn't have randomly forded a 40-foot-deep river
  4. You couldn't kill thousands of pounds of buffalo
  5. Dysentery was much, much worse than a punchline
  6. No one got a funny headstone with curse words when they died
  7. Native Americans didn't really want your sweaters
  8. The rafting trip at the end of the game was insane
  9. Starting out as a banker was even better than you realized

References to a rafting trip don't ring a bell for me, so I suspect the article is based on a version of the game that didn't appear on the Apple II — likely the 1990 MS-DOS edition. Still, it's fun to see where fiction diverges from fact.

But what if it went the other way, and instead of a game or book based on reality, we had reality based on a game? It'd probably end up looking like the Oregon Trail movie trailer (Oregon Trailer?), which I originally shared on this blog five (!) years ago:

Fortunately, fan films aren't the only media we have to rely on. Any armchair historian can learn more about this unique expansion of early American settlements in The California and Oregon trail, a 1901 book by Trail veteran Francis Parkman.

Or you can just play the game.

(Hat tip to Inside.com via VideoGames)

Trekking the Orion Trail

February 16th, 2015 10:20 AM
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I could do an entire blog — not just a blog post, but a blog — on the many Kickstarter campaigns influenced by the 8-bit era of computers. We've seen the return of games, franchises, and styles such as Maniac Mansion, Ultima, Shadowgate, Leisure Suit Larry, Wasteland, and interactive fiction; documentaries on Sierra On-Line and the 6502; and concerts including 8 bit Weapon's.

Oregon Trail alone has prompted several Kickstarters, from the successful Organ Trail to the failed Dead Man's Trail. The latest game likely to join the camp of successful projects is Orion Trail, which combines the gameplay of Oregon Trail with the humor of Space Quest and Galaxy Quest.

The best Kickstarters are those that come to the table with not just a concept, but a prototype — and Orion Trail delivers. If you have the Unity browser plugin installed, you can play an early version of Orion Trail today. I went a few rounds and enjoyed the graphics and humor, but I was demoralized by some of the scenarios my crew encountered. Whether I was being boarded by aliens, encountering space merchants, analyzing an asteroid, or attacking a doomsday machine, I always had three choices, and each seemed equally likely to produce a satisfying solution. No matter my choice, the game spun a random number wheel that somehow determined the result. Perhaps it was this peek at the game's inner workings, but I didn't feet like it mattered what choice I made.

On the bright side, you'll notice some obvious homages to classic computing. "The music was made with the SID emulation engine on an Elektron Monomachine," says the project page. "You'll recognize the SID's distinctive sound from your fondest memories of gaming on a C64 back in the day." Wrong computer for the Apple II community, but admirable nonetheless!

Developer Schell Games looks to release Orion Trail for Mac, Windows, and Linux in December 2015. The game has been Greenlit on Steam, which means when and if Orion Trail is published, it has been approved for distribution on the Steam game platform. Early Access will occur around August.

Before all that happens, the project must obtain a minimum of $90,000 in crowdfunding by March 12. It's currently a third of the way there, which bodes well: in Kickstarter's history, 79% of projects that raised more than 20% of their goal were successfully funded. It's likely we will all be making a star trek along the Orion Trail later this year.

Orion Trail

I have died.

UPDATE (13-Mar-15): This crowdfunding campaign successfully concluded with $97,801 — 108% of the minimum.

(Hat tip to Jenna Hoffstein)

Oregon Trail Live

November 10th, 2014 9:42 AM
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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
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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:

1977
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.

1985–87
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.