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July 3, 2011 / jwaxo

The Oregon Trail (Educational Games)


Using computers at school was always a little crazy. I’d like to take the time to remind you of this. Remember, how you’d maybe get an hour of computer time a week, if you were a good kid? Or maybe your elementary school had tons of computers, and you’d spend your free time browsing Encarta 96 and playing Reader Rabbit.

In elementary school, we’d have computer lab once a week, rotated in shifts with the kids who were having their library time. When it was our half of the class’s turn, we would be funneled in to a storage-closet turned computer. For that 45 minutes we would learn basic skills that I have since hammered from my automatic instincts: things like turning off Num Lock, double-spacing after sentences, and waiting for the ink to dry on printouts. However, if you were fast enough with the lesson, or maybe if the computer teacher was tired of that absurdly small, poorly ventilated sauna of a lab, you’d get to play Gertrude’s Secrets.

What was Gertrude’s Secrets you ask? It was only the greatest game known to man (available at school). You, a white rectangle, had to traverse through a 16-color world solving logic puzzles to find the different secrets Gertrude the goose left you, in hopes to find her.

“Boring,” you sigh. “Sounds like any educational game on the planet.” And that’s exactly it, isn’t it? It was an educational game. In it we learned about object comparison, finding things that didn’t belong, change sequences, and more. Of course, we didn’t realize we were learning about Venn diagrams and flowcharts, just that we were playing a game. And that is the genius of educational software, as I’m sure you know: kids have fun, but they learn a lot of stuff in it.

This is the root of elementary school, preschool, and most early learning programs: lessons disguised as games. Kids won’t resist learning if you trick them into it through fun, and they’ll probably even come back for more. The crazy thing here that I’m bringing up is how long this stuff sticks with us.

Way back, one Christmas, my brother got a chemistry set. I was jealous of this object for most of my young life. It was so cool! It unfolded into a little lab, with vials, flasks, metal implements, and a big booklet of things to do with it. It may not have looked like it to most people, but to me that thing was the equivalent of Frankenstein’s castle.

Lightning not included.

I never got to play with the chemistry set. I was too little. But oh, the dreams of what I could do with it: there would be explosions, artificial life would be created, I would really make those plastic goggles work. But not.

Then, one day, we got this game. You’ll have to forgive me, as I can’t remember its name: something like “Dr. McCracken’s Laboratory” or something of that nature. The plot was simple and similar to most games: you visit a scientist friend’s laboratory, some experiments escape, and you have to clean it up through science and chemistry-themed puzzles (assisted by a flying, sentient nose). The best part, and the part that made me wet my pants in excitement, was the chemistry lab. Here you could pull out almost any standard element in a raw form, mix it together with other elements, and see what happened. There were flasks, beakers, Bunsen burners, gas mixers, everything you ever wanted in a chemistry set. Plus more litmus paper than you could want.

Because of this one feature, I played the rest of the game to death. And, because of the fun that I had, I still recall stupid parts of it, especially the really hard, advanced ones. Ever wanted to double-bond elements together into a gigantic, ring-shaped molecule? I did. Then, just a few weeks ago, I picked up SpaceChem, a ridiculous puzzle game where you form molecules from base elements, and realized that, not only do I still remember all of that stuff, but I can’t even remember the name of the game.

You’d think the “flying nose” bit would make this easier to Google.

Which brings me to the big tuna. The ultimate in educational games. The Oregon Trail. Installed on every school computer in America. Played by every schoolkid.

Just reflect on it for a moment. Try to list all of the things you learned from that game. Resource management: hunting is fun, but you’ll waste all of that meat! Basic medicine: grueling pace will kill that character you named after your sister, since she now has malaria. History, famous landmarks, famous songs, the ease of being a wealthy banker over a farmer which translates to class differences. This is heavy stuff! Swirl it all together with the dangers of living back in the Old West, and that is a heavy game.

I may have said before that the general rule at our house was “you can only play educational games on schoolnights.” The thing was, we kind of loved educational games. From Microsoft Dinosaurs to SimCity to the entire Trail collection. And oh, we had quite the collection. Amazon Trail 1 & 2, Yukon Trail, most of the Oregons… We must have traveled the entire world over a hundred times.

I guess the bottom line is, our generation is proof that educational games are worth their stuff. Whether it’s simple things like Reader Rabbit, teaching math in a colorful and silly way, to The Incredible Machine, teaching logic and out-of-the-box thinking. In that way, I guess most games kind of teach you something, not just the ones with a large “Edutainment!” stamp on the front. Oh, wait. I guess that’s kind of half of the point of this blog.

Not that any of that stuff affects me today! Now leave me alone to fix this Minecraft circuits problem.

No school or game learnin’ would be applicable in this situation.



Leave a Comment
  1. Sean / Jul 3 2011 6:19 PM

    Although I used to love all the educational games at school, I remember being primarily absorbed by “Scorched Earth”, which had little in the way of educational value. Aside from preparing our generation for the future of vector-launching games, like “Angry Birds”.

  2. jwaxo / Jul 3 2011 10:36 PM

    Also things that could have possibly been commented on: the installation of the “NESticle” emulator on all of the middle school’s computers, Bonzi Buddy, and Armagetron. They weren’t educational, though. :(

  3. Denver Moore / Jul 7 2011 6:47 AM

    Loved the Oregon Trail, I wish they would come out with updated remakes of this stuff.

  4. Maria / Jul 9 2011 2:54 PM

    And look at where you ended up. I think we all learned a lesson from Oregon Trail. Perhaps the wrong lesson, but a lesson.

  5. DP / Sep 2 2011 4:46 PM

    Have you found the name of the game with the flying nose yet? I also played this game as a child. I believe the salt character’s name was Sally Saltine. There was also a purple cat with a hole where his stomach should be, as well as a darker purple blob. I’ve been looking for this game for a long time.

    • jwaxo / Sep 2 2011 5:25 PM

      Oh man, I can’t believe someone else played it! I have no idea what it is. Dr Someone’s Secret Lab. If only!

      You’re right about the cat with the hole and the dark purple blob. That much is true. And the evil things looked kind of like flying, half-eaten apples. But beyond that…

      • DP / Dec 5 2011 11:09 AM

        Lo and behold, I have remembered the game! It’s called “Dr. Sulfur’s Night Lab”. Having installed it again, the game is just as weird as I remember it being.


      • jwaxo / Dec 5 2011 11:10 AM

        You have made my day! How did you find it?

        Also: Super-happy my drawing of the nose was approximately correct. Forgot that ever-important eyebrow; it emotes!

      • DP / Dec 5 2011 3:55 PM

        I actually asked my dad on a whim. Considering this man cannot remember the plot of any movie he has ever seen, it’s nothing short of a miracle that he knew the name of the game instantly.

        Anyways, there’s my present to you. Enjoy playing with the chemistry set over the holidays!


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