Every Tuesday in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

Late last week, the Internet Archive released a number of old-school computer games, including the 1990 MECC edition of The Oregon Trail. On Friday, January 8, Lori Grisham of USA Today Network said, “It’s currently the top-viewed game on the archive with more than 170,000 clicks.” I admit that several of those clicks are mine, and as I tried to access the link today, mid-Sunday afternoon, I kept getting the message that the server was too busy. So I’m not alone in my nostalgia for the elementary school geography and history staple that left us all in fear of dysentery.

The first time I played, my five-year-old daughter joined me, curled up next to me and curious about the scenery, the oxen slowly moving across the screen, and mommy’s sudden efforts to “hunt.” We talked about naming the characters after our family, but I dissuaded her because I suspected most of us would not survive the typhoid, river crossings, and exhaustion of the trail. We went with an all-princess ensemble instead, and Snow White kept getting lost along the trail or suffering from snake bites. Really, that girl has no sense.

On my first try, we didn’t make it to the Willamette Valley, and my daughter declared the game “awful.” She advised me to make better choices if I made another attempt. It’s true that some of my choices got better as I practiced; I figured out when rivers are just too deep to ford, how to adjust the pace, and when to rest. I quickly realized that pushing the pace and cutting rations usually results in self-destruction, or, in this case, vicarious destruction of princesses. Apparently basic maintenance of the body matters in real life and on the Trail.

But I also tried to explain to my child that not everything in the game was under my control; even with filling meals and a reasonable pace, sometimes a character got sick or died suddenly, even without warning. Weather would change from day to day. I could rest and restore my characters’ health only to run into rough trails and wasted days later. While I ended up “winning” several times with my wagon full of princesses, the results varied and luck played as big a role as my developing skill. Starting with lots of money didn’t hurt either. It felt, in short, a lot like life.

I completely understand my daughter’s desire to control the game. My ideal would be to load the wagon with supplies and haul it to Oregon without stopping to talk to anyone, deal with wagon fires, or repair broken wagon parts. I would plan the whole trip, day by day, and stick to the schedule. But you know what they say about the best laid plans. It reminded me of our Christmas week, which I’d planned to perfection. And then, a week before Christmas, my father-in-law passed away, and our restful holiday break vanished. My husband headed to Oregon (his home state, by plane, though, not covered-wagon), while I stayed behind with the kids. I made a new, and equally brilliant, plan.

And then the three of us at home caught a stomach bug, so we spent Christmas day curled up watching a week’s worth of television. It turned out to be a particularly lonely, difficult Christmas, even as I counted our blessings. Harder still was trying to explain to my little ones that Daddy was not “vacationing” on the West Coast. This Christmas, like so many of my travels on The Oregon Trail, I watched my well-tuned plan fall apart. It wasn’t about making better decisions but about coping with the circumstances, sufficient to each day.

It was interesting to play The Oregon Trail for the first time in more than twenty years, from the vantage point of adulthood and motherhood, where the idea of an entire family perishing on the frontier seems decidedly grimmer. It’s like the experience of rereading Little House on the Prairie to my older daughter, and realizing that each chapter contains a near-death experience that Pa and Ma seem to just brush aside. But really, what else can any of us do? We carry on, and if we know Christ, with hope and faith but no earthly guarantees. We set out on the trail with a plan and a prayer and go by the grace of God. Or, as my husband’s grandfather likes to say, “God willing and the creek don’t rise.” A lesson the wagonload of princesses and I learned well enough.


  1. Somehow I never encountered the game when I was growing up, but it played a crucial role in a flashback on “Person of Interest” a while back, so now I know what it is! :-) This was a fun piece.

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