What can we learn from playing Oregon Trail?

Always get an Indian guide to cross the river and bring LOTS of ammunition.

For anyone who is unfamiliar, Oregon Trail was a popular educational video game that first came out in the 70s, but was reintroduced later for DOS. It was a staple in school computer labs, so anyone who went to public school in the 80s and 90s, including myself, gets very nostalgic about this game.

The Oregon Trail game came up recently as we began work on designing exhibits for a historic site in California. The content of the game is so appropriate that, for a while, this site actually had it set up on a computer in their temporary exhibit space for visitors to play. And I admit, I’ve heard myself saying “You know, just like Oregon Trail!” several times in brainstorms already.

I have been to other museums, and we have designed exhibits, that include situational games on computers and touchscreens. The Heifer Village has an especially interesting one in which visitors step into the shoes of children in developing nations. Visitors can select from characters in different countries, then are presented with a series of choices. I played through several different characters and tried out different choices for the same character to see what would change in their lives.

It seems like these games can be very useful in helping visitors step into the shoes of people far-removed from their own lives. If nothing else, the Oregon Trail game definitely created the lasting impression on me that traveling west was very difficult and mortality rates were high.

However, there definitely are some downsides to designing these types of games into exhibits. They can be isolating—the interaction is between one visitor and a computer screen—when museum visits should generally be social experiences. Studies have shown that interaction between visitors, especially children with adults, is vital to meaningful learning in museums. Plus, technology changes often. Today’s kids would probably roll on the ground laughing at Oregon Trail’s graphics.

What do think are the pros and cons of designing video games into museum exhibits? Do you have any good or bad examples you have seen recently?