Let’s just get this out of the way up front: I hate Oregon Trail.
Hate it with the power of a thousand fiery suns.
We had to play it in 4th grade, in pairs, and I always let my partner do all the clicking and basically just sat there frozen in my molded plastic seat, trying to avert my eyes. It wasn’t that basically in order to learn how to play the game you have to die of dysentery over and over and over. I was fine dying of dysentery. I understood that that was a reality of 19th century exploration.
What I wasn’t fine with, though, was how often your oxen died. And I always thought of them as my oxen.
Each time I played, I was confronted by a brand new pair of oxen that would inevitably meet their doom at the hands of my own incompetence — or my partner’s, because again with the averting of the eyes and the freaking out. Every time I even hear the words “Oregon Trail” I’m haunted by the spectres of dozens of dead oxen with sad pleading ghost eyes and drooping horns.
What can I say, I was a sensitive wee thing.
But that’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy games. I loved games! Connect Four (the tactile feel of the chips, the plotting, the rush of noise when you let them all fall at the end), Trivial Pursuit (no one in the history of time, I believe, has ever beaten my father at this game, and yet I persevered!) and above all else, the Steve Jackson Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks, cheap and cheerful pulp paperbacks you game your way through armed with only a six-sided dice, paper and pencil.
I still have my books, all battered and torn up from the summer I carried them all in my backpack with me everywhere. I have the maps I drew of Firetop Mountain and the Island of the Lizard King (it was impossible to map out the Forest of Doom because believe me when I say I have devoted serious study to this idea). I have my character sheets with their careful equations of risk and loss against a host of gryphons, orcs, wild-haired old men and dragons.
And that, I think, was a key reason I loved the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks so much: none of those creatures are real. (Except the old men and honestly, it was very hard to feel sympathy for them.)
My point is that the risk of this set of games was way more acceptable to me: I had only myself, a lone wanderer, and my coin purse to watch out for, so if I got slain by four kobolds lying in wait in a mysterious glen, I could just shrug it off and try to remember where the glen was for next time.
Both games had clearly defined rules, feedback systems and, honestly, the same goal: survival. But there’s nothing voluntary about forcing students to slaughter oxen for a grade.