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The Quick 10: The Oregon Trail Computer Game

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Despite my video and computer game obsessions of recent years "“ Guitar Hero, The Sims and World of Warcraft among them "“ if I had to rank the best games ever, Oregon Trail would still make my top 10 (along with Carmen Sandiego, obviously). In fact, I just spent way too much time playing it in the name of "research." Here's what that "“ and some actual research "“ uncovered.

fire1. Although you probably played it in the late "˜80s or early "˜90s, the game has been around since 1971, when a trio of student teachers from Minnesota cobbled together a program for a history class one of them was teaching. Three years later, one of the teachers took a job at Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, a company that developed educational software. He allowed Oregon Trail to be uploaded to MECC's database and it spread across the state like cholera. By 1985 the game was so popular that it was released on floppy disk (remember those?) on a national level.

2.In the original version, players didn't get to aim a gun and hunt for buffalo and bear. Instead, the "shooting" happened by onomatopoeia "“ players had to type "Bang" and "Pow" as fast as possible. The faster they typed, the more meat they received. Misspelled words resulted in a failed hunting expedition.

3. The diseases the members of your party could potentially die of were dysentery, cholera, drowning, fever, a snakebite, typhoid, exhaustion, broken limbs and measles, among other things.

4. In 1994, MECC belatedly followed up the smash hit Oregon Trail with the decidedly less thrilling Yukon Trail. I should know; I definitely owned it. It was still enjoyable, but it was no Oregon Trail. Players would head out from Seattle in 1897 and take a ferry to one of two towns. Then, like the Oregon Trail, there are rivers to be forged and obstacles to be conquered. But along the way, wannabe gold diggers stumble across famous figures like Jack London, Sam Steele and Nellie Cashman. Then you get to claim and area and start panning for gold.

5. The Oregon Trail II was released in 1996. I must have lost interest by this point because I don't recall this game at all. It was a much more advanced version of the first "“ for instance, after selecting an occupation for your main player, you could spend extra points to give them extra skills such as botany or medicine. And there were many more occupations to choose from "“ in the original, the options are few: banker, farmer or carpenter. The updated version had more than 20 careers to choose from, including journalist. Call me crazy, but I feel like writing skills aren't going to really come in handy when your oxen fall sick or you bust a wheel on your Conestoga. The 1996 version also allowed players to select from various skill levels and starting towns.

numbers6. MECC was behind some of the other fascinating classroom computer games of the "˜80s. You might remember Odell Lake, Number Munchers, Lemonade Stand, Spellevator and Storybook Weaver.
7. When someone from your party died, you could make a custom epitaph for them. You might remember that sometimes you would see someone else's tombstone while on your travels, specifically someone named "Andy" whose epitaph read, "Here lies andy; peperony and chease." What?! The story is that a kid named Andy was particularly amused by those Tombstone pizza commercials that growled, "What do you want on your Tombstone?" The spelling-challenged Andy answered, appropriately, "peperony and chease." So how did it get on your copy? Well, his game was saved on a disk that ended up being a disk that was very popularly pirated later on. So there you go.

8. Assuming you didn't die, right away, the landmarks you would hit on your journey included Fort Kearney, Independence Rock, Chimney Rock, Fort Laramie, South Pass, and the Columbia River.

9. Your score at the end of the game is determined by a lot of things "“ your profession, how many members of your party made it all the way through, the health of the remaining members, the time you made it in, the supplies you have left and how much leftover money you have. The world record right now is apparently 53,350 points by Craig Ian Weibman.

grave10. My personal favorite strategy was to give the least amount of supplies humanly possible, set off for the Trail so we would be traveling in the dead of winter, and set the pace to "grueling." Only the strong survive"¦ which apparently doesn't include me.

And because I love to help you guys procrastinate when you should be working or studying or doing something productive, here you go "“ you can now play Oregon Trail for free on Virtual Apple. If you haven't played it in years, I highly recommend clicking the link "“ the feeling of glee you will get when you see the terrible graphics and the delight you will feel when the first member of your party dies from dysentery is SO WORTH IT. Good luck, pioneers, and be sure to share your Oregon Trail nostalgia in the comments.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Vanilla and French Vanilla Ice Cream?
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While you’re browsing the ice cream aisle, you may find yourself wondering, “What’s so French about French vanilla?” The name may sound a little fancier than just plain ol’ “vanilla,” but it has nothing to do with the origin of the vanilla itself. (Vanilla is a tropical plant that grows near the equator.)

The difference comes down to eggs, as The Kitchn explains. You may have already noticed that French vanilla ice cream tends to have a slightly yellow coloring, while plain vanilla ice cream is more white. That’s because the base of French vanilla ice cream has egg yolks added to it.

The eggs give French vanilla ice cream both a smoother consistency and that subtle yellow color. The taste is a little richer and a little more complex than a regular vanilla, which is made with just milk and cream and is sometimes called “Philadelphia-style vanilla” ice cream.

In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered in 2010—when Baskin-Robbins decided to eliminate French Vanilla from its ice cream lineup—ice cream industry consultant Bruce Tharp noted that French vanilla ice cream may date back to at least colonial times, when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both used ice cream recipes that included egg yolks.

Jefferson likely acquired his taste for ice cream during the time he spent in France, and served it to his White House guests several times. His family’s ice cream recipe—which calls for six egg yolks per quart of cream—seems to have originated with his French butler.

But everyone already knew to trust the French with their dairy products, right?

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

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Belly Flop Physics 101: The Science Behind the Sting
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Belly flops are the least-dignified—yet most painful—way of making a serious splash at the pool. Rarely do they result in serious physical injury, but if you’re wondering why an elegant swan dive feels better for your body than falling stomach-first into the water, you can learn the laws of physics that turn your soft torso a tender pink by watching the SciShow’s video below.


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