Sally Died of Dysentery: A History of The Oregon Trail

MECC
MECC

The eighth grade students sat and watched as Don Rawitsch dragged an enormous device into their classroom. It was December 3, 1971, and Rawitsch—a student teacher at Carleton College outside of Minneapolis who taught history at a local grade school—was ready to show off what his roommates, Paul Dillenberger and Bill Heinemann, had managed to create in only two weeks of programming and with limited, amateur coding skills: a game called The Oregon Trail.

There was no screen to focus on. The computer’s interface was a teletype machine, which spat out instructions and the consequences of a player’s actions on sheets of paper. Adopting the well-worn shoes of settlers migrating from Missouri to Oregon in 1848, the students debated how best to spend their money, when to stop and rest, and how to deal with the sudden and unexpected illnesses that plagued their game counterparts. Rawitsch even supplied them with a map of the journey so they could visualize the perils ahead.

The students loved it: The Oregon Trail would eventually morph from a part-time experiment in guided learning to a staple of classrooms across the country. Kids who had never before heard of diphtheria or cholera would bemoan such cruel fates; tens of thousands of people would (virtually) drown trying to cross rivers; more than 65 million copies would be sold.

But Rawitsch was oblivious to the cultural touchstone The Oregon Trail would become. He didn't foresee the simple game having much of a shelf life beyond the semester, so at the end of the year, he deleted it.

 
 

As low-tech as it was, the first version of The Oregon Trail was still miles ahead of anything Rawitsch could have imagined when he set about trying to engage his students. As a 21-year-old history major, Rawitsch was young enough to realize that his teenaged students needed something more provocative than dry textbooks. In the fall of 1971, he decided to create a board game based on the precarious movement of 19th-century travelers looking to head west to improve their living conditions.

On a large piece of butcher’s paper, he drew a map that provided a rough outline of the 2000-mile journey from Independence, Missouri to Willamette Valley, Oregon. Along the way, players would have to contend with a morbid series of obstacles: fire, inclement weather, lack of food, outdated sicknesses, and, frequently, death. Every decision played a part in whether or not they'd make it to the end without keeling over.

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

Rawitsch showed his idea for the board game to Dillenberger and Heinemann, two other seniors from Carleton, who both had experience coding using the BASIC computer language. They suggested Rawitsch’s game would be perfect for a text-based adventure using teletype. A player could, for example, type “BANG” in order to shoot oxen or deer, and the computer would identify how fast and how accurately the typist finished the command—the quicker they were, the better chance they had of securing dinner.

Rawitsch liked the idea, but he was due to start teaching westward expansion in just a couple weeks, so there was no time to waste. Heinemann and Dillenberger worked after-hours for two weeks to get The Oregon Trail ready. When it made its debut that December day in 1971, Rawitsch knew he had a hit—albeit a transient one. Like a teacher who had supervised a special crafts project for a specific classroom, Rawitsch didn’t see a need to retain The Oregon Trail for the future and promptly deleted it from the school’s mainframe system.

Dillenberger and Heinemann took permanent teaching jobs after graduation; Rawitsch found his number called up in the draft. He declared himself a conscientious objector and as part of that found work at the newly-formed Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), a state-sponsored program that sought to modernize public schools with computing supplies. It was 1974, and Rawitsch believed he had the perfect software to go along with their initiative: The Oregon Trail. Even though he had deleted the game, Rawitsch had kept a printout of the code.

Typing it in line by line, Rawitsch had the game back up and running and available to students across Minnesota. This time, he consulted actual journal entries of settlers to see when and where danger might strike and programmed the game to intervene at the appropriate places along the path. If a real traveler had endured a 20 percent chance of running out of water, so would the player.

Rawitsch got permission from Dillenberger and Heinemann to repurpose the game for MECC. It’s unlikely any one of the three of them realized just how much of an institution the game would become, or how MECC's business partner, Apple—then an upstart computer corporation—would revolutionize the industry.

By 1978, MECC was partnering with the hardware company to sell Apple IIs and learning software to school districts around the country. Rather than being a regional hit, The Oregon Trail—now sporting primitive screen graphics—was becoming a national fixture in classrooms.

 
 

For much of the 1980s and 1990s, school computer classes across America devoted at least some portion of their allotted time to the game. The covered wagon and its misadventures offered something that vaguely resembled the hypnotic, pixely worlds waiting for students on their Nintendo consoles at home. In that respect, The Oregon Trail felt a little less like learning and a lot more like entertainment—although completing the journey in one piece was an unusual occurrence. More often, players would be defeated by malnutrition or drowning in attempts to cross a river. They'd also be confounded by the idea they could hunt and kill a 2000-pound animal but were able to take only a fraction of it back to their wagon. (Confronted with this during a Reddit Ask Me Anything in 2016, Rawitsch noted that "the concept represented there is supposed to be that the meal will spoil, not that it's too heavy," and suggested incorporating a "fridge with a 2000-mile extension cord.")

A screen shot from 'The Oregon Trail'
MECC

An updated version, Oregon Trail II, debuted on CD-ROM in 1995. MECC would change hands a few times, being acquired by venture capitalists and then by the Learning Company, and was even owned for a period of time by Mattel. Attempts to update it with flashy graphics felt contrary to the spirit of the game; like the settlers it depicted, The Oregon Trail seemed to belong to another era.

Today, both Dillenberger and Heinemann are retired; Rawitsch is a tech consultant. None of them received any profit participation for the software. Their joint effort was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016 and was adapted into a card game that same year. Today, players of the popular role-playing game Minecraft can access a virtual Oregon Trail world; the original game is also playable in browsers. Technology may have advanced, but you can still die of dysentery as often as you like.

Traumatic Episodes: A History of the ABC Afterschool Special

BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon
BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon

My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel. The Toothpaste Millionaire. Me and Dad’s New Wife. She Drinks a Little. Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom. High School Narc. Don’t Touch. From 1972 to 1996, no topic was too taboo for the ABC Afterschool Special, an anthology series that aired every other Wednesday at 4 p.m. Each of the standalone, hour-long installments highlighted issues facing teens and young adults, from underage drinking to the stress of living in a foster home. For the millions of viewers tuning in, it might have been their first exposure to a difficult topic—or the first indication that they weren’t alone in their struggle.

The Afterschool Special originated in the early 1970s, when programming executives at ABC had an epiphany: While there was a lot of content for families and adults during primetime, soap operas for adults in the daytime, and cartoons for children on Saturday mornings, there was relatively little content directed specifically at teenagers and pre-teens. The network saw an opportunity to fill that gap by airing topical specials midweek, when parents watching General Hospital might leave the television on and stick around to watch some TV with their adolescent children.

Initially, the network solicited a mix of fanciful stories and serious, issue-based melodramas. In the animated Incredible, Indelible, Magical Physical Mystery Trip, two kids were shrunk down to the size of a cell to travel through their uncle’s body. In Follow the Northern Star, a boy ushers a friend through the Underground Railroad to escape slavery.

 

Not long after the series debuted in the fall of 1972, ABC executives—including Brandon Stoddard, who was initially in charge of the show and was later responsible for getting the landmark 1977 miniseries Roots and David Lynch's quirky Twin Peaks onto the air—realized that the more puerile stories may have been working against them.

According to Martin Tahse, a producer on dozens of these specials, it was rare for older teens to watch programming intended for younger children. Pre-teens, on the other hand, would watch content meant for an older audience. By season three, the specials were largely made up of topical content. In The Skating Rink, a teen skater overcomes shyness borne out of stuttering. In The Bridge of Adam Rush, a teen copes with a cross-country move after his mother remarries.

The ABC Afterschool Special was an immediate hit, drawing an average of 9.4 million viewers between 1972 and 1974. Many episodes were based on young adult novels, like Rookie of the Year, which stars Jodie Foster as a girl struggling to find acceptance on a boys’ Little League team, or Sara’s Summer of the Swans, about a young woman searching for her missing, mentally challenged brother.

The series also sourced material from magazine articles, short stories, and other venues. For 1983’s The Wave, which originally aired on ABC in primetime in 1981, the story of a high school teacher who describes fascism and Hitler’s rise to power by successfully convincing his students to subscribe to a dictatorial rule, was based on the real experiences of Palo Alto teacher Ron Jones.

The effect of the topical episodes could be potent. For a 1985 special titled One Too Many, which starred Val Kilmer as an underage drinker and Michelle Pfeiffer as his girlfriend, one viewer wrote in to the Los Angeles Times to explain how the show had impacted her:

After watching the ABC Afterschool Special titled One Too Many, a story of drinking and driving, I realized I have taken too many chances with my life. I always think I can handle myself and my car after I’ve had something to drink. Nothing has happened to me … yet. I’d like to thank ABC for showing a program that could possibly save the lives of my friends and me. I’ve realized that drinking and driving is not worth the price of life.

 

As Tahse explained to interviewer Kier-La Janisse, the specials resonated with kids because they rarely indulged in what could be considered a fairy tale ending. “It had to be real,” he said. “If kids watched any of my three specials dealing with alcoholic parents, they were never given a fairy tale ending. I saw to that, because I came from an alcoholic father and knew all the tricks and I wanted the kids who watched—many dealing with the same problem or having friends who had alcoholic parents—to know how it really is.”

The shows also picked up their share of awards. One installment, the self-explanatory Andrea’s Story: A Hitchhiking Tragedy, won five Daytime Emmys in 1984, a third of all the Daytime Emmys ABC won that year. A Special Gift, a 1979 show about a basketball player who takes up ballet, won a Peabody Award.

By the mid-1980s, the specials attempted to strike more of a balance between morality plays and lighthearted fare. The 1984-1985 season consisted of seven episodes, including three comedies and one musical. In The Almost Royal Family, Sarah Jessica Parker stars as a teen whose family buys a home outside the jurisdiction of Canada and the U.S. In Mom’s on Strike, an overworked mother decides to suspend her duties until her family can appreciate her contributions.

Gradually, the specials began leaning back toward hot-button topics. Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions took over producing the series in 1991. That season, Winfrey introduced the episodes, including two panel discussions about relationships and race relations. Though the series did revert back to fictional narratives, it gradually lost its footing in the wake of shows that had a more adolescent bent. A “Very Special Episode” of Beverly Hills, 90210 or Family Matters was essentially a stealth afterschool special. The series was canceled in 1996.

That the show endured for nearly a quarter of a century is a testament to the craftsmanship of producers like Tahse and the support of ABC, who rarely shied away from difficult topics. Still, Tahse—who died in 2014—believed that the series' broad appeal went beyond that.

“The only rule of storytelling that ABC required we follow was … the kid always had to figure out what to do and do it,” he said. “No finger-waving by parents, no lectures by parents. It was a kid who was in a situation and found, through his or her own efforts, a solution.”

Batmania: When Batman Ruled the Summer of 1989

JD Hancock, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
JD Hancock, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

“Flop” is how marketing research group Marketing Evaluation Inc. assessed the box office potential of the 1989 Warner Bros. film Batman. The big-budget production, directed by Tim Burton and co-starring Michael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, was expected to be one of the rare times a major Hollywood studio took a comic book adaptation seriously. But according to the marketing data, the character of Batman was not as popular as the Incredible Hulk, who was then appearing in a slate of made-for-television movies. And he was only a quarter as appealing as the California Raisins, the claymation stars of advertising.

That prediction was made in 1988. The film was released on June 23, 1989, and went on to gross $253.4 million, making it the fifth most successful motion picture up to that point.

While Marketing Evaluation may have miscalculated the movie’s potential, they did hedge their bet. By the time profits from the movie’s merchandising—hats, shirts, posters, toys, bed sheets, etc.—were tallied, the company said, Warner Bros. could be looking at a sizable haul.

When the cash registers stopped ringing, the studio had sold $500 million in tie-in products, which was double the gross of the film itself.

In 1989, people didn’t merely want to see Batman—they wanted to wear the shirts, eat the cereal, and contemplate, if only for a moment, putting down $499.95 for a black denim jacket studded with rhinestones.

Batmania was in full swing. Which made it even more unusual when the studio later claimed the film had failed to turn a profit.

 

The merchandising blitz of Star Wars in 1977 gave studios hope that ambitious science-fiction and adventure movies would forever be intertwined with elaborate licensing strategies. George Lucas's space opera had driven audiences into a frenzy, leading retailers to stock up on everything from R2-D2 coffee mugs to plastic lightsabers. It was expected that other “toyetic” properties would follow suit.

They didn’t. Aside from 1982’s E.T., there was no direct correlation between a film’s success and demand for ancillary product. In 1984 alone, Gremlins, Ghostbusters, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were smash hits. None of them motivated people to flock to stores and buy Gizmo plush animals or toy proton packs. (Ghostbusters toys eventually caught on, but only after an animated series helped nudge kids in their direction.)

Warner Bros. saw Batman differently. When the script was being developed, producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber were urging writers to make sure scenes were aligned with planned merchandising. They scribbled notes insisting that no onscreen harm come to the Batmobile: It should remain pristine so that kids would want to grab the toy version. As Batman, millionaire Bruce Wayne had a collection of vehicles and gadgets at his disposal—all props that could be replicated in plastic. Batman's comic book origins gave him a unique iconography that lent itself to flashy graphic apparel.

In March 1989, just three months before the film's release, Warner Bros. announced that it was merging with Time Inc. to create the mega-conglomerate Time-Warner, which would allow the film studio to capitalize on a deep bench of talent to help drive the “event” feel of the film.

Prince was signed to Warner's record label and agreed to compose an album of concept music that was tied to the characters; “Batdance" was among the songs and became a #1 hit. Their licensing arm, Licensing Corporation of America, contracted with 300 licensees to create more than 100 products, some of which were featured in an expansive brochure that resembled a bat-eared Neiman Marcus catalog. The sheer glut of product became a story, as evidenced by this Entertainment Tonight segment on the film's licensing push:

In addition to the rhinestone jacket, fans could opt for the Batman watch ($34.95), a baseball cap ($7.95), bicycle shorts ($26.95), a matching top ($24.95), a model Batwing ($29.95), action figures ($5.95), and a satin jacket modeled by Batman co-creator Bob Kane ($49.95).

The Batman logo became a way of communicating anticipation for the film. The virtually textless teaser poster, which had only the June 23 opening date printed on it, was snapped up and taped to walls. (Roughly 1200 of the posters sized for bus stops and subways were stolen, a crude but effective form of market research.) In barber shops, people began asking to have the logo sheared into the sides of their heads. The Batman symbol was omnipresent. If you had forgotten about the movie for even five minutes, someone would eventually walk by sporting a pair of Batman earrings to remind you.

At Golden Apple Comics in Los Angeles, 7000 packs of Batman trading cards flew out the door. Management hired additional staff and a security guard to handle the crowds. The store carried 36 different kinds of Batman T-shirts. Observers compared the hysteria to the hula hoop craze of the 1950s.

One retailer made a more contemporary comparison. “There’s no question Batman is the hottest thing this year,” Marie Strong, manager of It’s a Small World at a mall in La Crosse, Wisconsin, told the La Crosse Tribune. “[It’s] the hottest [thing] since Spuds McKenzie toward the end of last year.”

 

By the time Batman was in theaters and breaking records—it became the first film to make $100 million in just 10 days, alerting studios to the idea of short-term profits—the merchandising had become an avalanche. Stores that didn’t normally carry licensed goods, like Macy’s, set up displays.

Not everyone opted for officially-licensed apparel: U.S. marshals conducted raids across the country, seizing more than 40,000 counterfeit Batman shirts and other bogus items.

Collectively, Warner raked in $500 million from legitimate products. In 1991, the Los Angeles Times reported that the studio claimed only $2.9 million in profit had been realized from merchandising and that the movie itself was in a $35.8 million financial hole owing to excessive promotional and production costs. It was a tale typical of creative studio accounting, long a method for avoiding payouts to net profit participants. (Nicholson, whose contract stipulated a cut of all profits, earned $50 million.)

Whatever financial sleight-of-hand was implemented, Warner clearly counted on Batman to be a money-printing operation. Merchandising plans for the sequel, 1992’s Batman Returns, were even more strategic, including a tie-in agreement with McDonald’s for Happy Meals. In a meta moment, one deleted script passage even had Batman’s enemies attacking a toy store in Gotham full of Batman merchandise. The set was built but the scene never made it onscreen.

The studio was willing to give Burton more control over the film, which was decidedly darker and more sexualized than the original. Batman Returns was hardly a failure, but merchandising was no longer as hot as it was in the summer of 1989. Instead of selling out of shirts, stores ended up marking down excess inventory. McDonald’s, unhappy with the content of the film, enacted a policy of screening movies they planned to partner with before making any agreements. By the time Warner released 1995’s Batman Forever, the franchise was essentially a feature-length toy commercial.

It paid off. Licensing for the film topped $1 billion. Today, given the choice between a film with Oscar-level prestige or one with the potential to have its logo emblazoned on a rhinestone jacket that people would actually want to buy, studios would probably choose the latter. In that sense, the Batmania of 1989 endures.

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