It’s the 50th anniversary of the most gruesome, over-the-top video game ever created. It was graphic, it was sadistic, and it was on Windows 95 at the Springfield Public Library in New Jersey. Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter wish they had what this piece of cybernated Americana has.
The Oregon Trail.
To give you some context, I was 7 when I started playing OT 1996. And I’m not an outlier — most people my age were introduced to this educational hellscape in grade school.
At that point in my life, my Orthodox Jewish parents wouldn’t let me watch action movies or even much of the news because of how explicit and smutty they could be. I couldn’t watch Power Rangers because of the violence, yet I was encouraged to play a computer game that frequently ended with my livestock drowning in a river, members of my family starving to death, and me looking up words like dysentery in the dictionary. (Luckily, if you were playing OT, you were probably already in a library or classroom.)
I loved how matter-of-fact it was. There were no massive explosions or aliens on the Oregon Trail. You weren’t fighting giant one-eyed tentacle monsters or smashing buildings as a radioactive monkey.
When you failed a level, the screen didn’t read “Game Over! Play again? Y/N.” It showed you the gravestones of your dead family members and explained, in graphic detail, how they succumbed to the elements. When your loved ones died, the most they got by way of acknowledgment was a pop-up window as part of the quickest roadside funeral imaginable.
The creators at MECC didn’t sugarcoat an ounce of that game for the benefit of us young children. Sometimes your wife gets cholera on the same day your son gets bitten by snakes. Deal with it. You could get merked by something as morbid as diphtheria (which covered your throat in a fatal thick sheet of gray matter) or as innocent as a broken leg. You could even pass away from the vague specter of exhaustion, a fun lesson to kids that just the act of being tired on the trail was potentially life-threatening.
This text-based 1800s western-expansion simulator was my introduction to trauma porn and my gateway drug to a life-long obsession with true crime. I’m not the only one — maybe you heard, but 20-, 30-, and 40-somethings are true crime obsessed.
Just as Oregon Trail made me realize I could potentially, theoretically, possibly, maybe die from a snake bite, docuseries like Making a Murderer made me realize I could potentially, theoretically, possibly, maybe go to prison by accidentally confessing to a murder I had nothing to do with.
I absorbed OT as a child the same way I dove into series like The Jinx and The Bundy Tapes as an adult, and now it’s clear why: True-crime content lets you watch awful real-life scenarios unfold for strangers, so there are no direct consequences to your own personal life. You get to experience trauma from a distance.
Of course, you feel bad about what is happening, but it’s impossible to look away. You would have to be a monster not to experience some level of empathy while bingeing your way through a series devoted to small-town murders and/or cult victims. Knowing this is happening to real people is what makes the watching feel voyeuristic and why it isn’t uncommon to feel some small level of guilt for watching, like gawking at car wrecks on the side of the road.
By nature, humans are curious, and I’d argue there is nothing more interesting than watching “what if?” circumstances that just do not ever actually happen (until they do happen) to real people. The darker the story, the harder it is to look away. And what’s more, everyone in documentaries looks like regular people, so it isn’t hard to put yourself in their shoes.
Making a Murderer wasn’t hot Hollywood actors delivering schmaltzy courtroom monologues. The members of that Manitowoc jury could’ve been from any small town, including mine, and half the guys I grew up with were Brendan Dassey-esque wrestling fans. The Levines could have easily been Springfield’s Averys. (Minus the lack of Jews. In my opinion, that documentary is half about legal corruption and half about what happens if you don’t have any Jewish lawyers. But I digress.)
Oregon Trail felt personal because of how easy it was to picture myself in the game. It kept me up at night thinking how if I had been born just 100 years earlier, I would have for sure died of typhoid and been buried in one of those unmemorable roadside funerals.
They even let you name the members of your family in the game, and I would always name them after my own. This meant that each time I’d play, the Levines would saddle up and head out West … then all slowly die.
It felt like I was failing my family when text inevitably popped up informing me that “Tamar Levine Died of Cholera.” There were no actual stakes for me, but I felt invested. The same way I do today watching documentaries about serial killers — as if I myself am a bystander at risk of becoming a victim.
I always assumed The Oregon Trail was made by the same people who produced first-person shooter games like Call of Duty because of how brutal it was. To me, part of the appeal was that it felt like a violent video game you could play in the library. Turns out, OT was developed purely as an educational device. (In retrospect, it feels stupid that this fact surprised me.)
This game’s origin story could not be less edgy. It was created in 1971 by a college education student named Don Rawitsch who was looking for a new way to teach his 8th-grade class about American history. He made a board game about western expansion, and then two of his friends coded the concept for screenless Teletype computers. At no point was it meant to be nightmare fuel.
The creators of The Oregon Trail don’t get enough credit for giving bored, jaded ’90s kids their first taste of true crime. They were well-meaning innovators who exposed us to graphic content in the guise of educational enrichment and created one of the most enduring video games ever in the process.
Would I spend nights on Wikipedia in Wild Wild Country rabbit holes as an adult if I hadn’t experienced life on the Oregon Trail at an early age? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, it’s near impossible to squash an obsession, and as much as my parents and the Rabbis at Rav Tetiz’s Mesivta Hebrew Academy tried to shield me from how brutal the outside world can be, maybe it was inevitable. There is just too much trauma porn out there. If it wasn’t OT, it probably would have been Unsolved Mysteries reruns or even just People magazines I would secretly swipe from the waiting room at my dad’s law office.
On the other hand, being a grizzled 7-year-old child who knew the dictionary definition of asphyxia didn’t exactly stifle my inner-murderino. If anything, it was the foundation for a curiosity about how horrible, random, and fascinating real life can be.