Tuesday, December 4, 2012

#20 Oregon Trail

The last week of summer vacation before 5th grade, Lynn Swanson told me that I was going to enjoy Mr. Nykerk’s class next year. I was dreading coming back to school after summer vacation, attempting and failing to slow down time in my mind and I certainly wasn't sure how any teacher was going to make me feel any better about it. Sure, I had had good teachers in the past, but how could any teacher make me excited about leaving behind the freedom and fun of summer vacation? I looked at Lynn skeptically and thought that Mr. Nykerk better give us ice cream and let us play video games every day to make me change my mind.

Fifth grade with Mr. Nykerk ended up being one of the best years of my life. Every day I was excited to come to school. I developed lifelong passions for creative writing and fantasy baseball. I blossomed socially from a quiet kid into a classroom leader. My grades improved and my confidence soared. If I had had a terrible teacher in 5th grade, I might be passed out drunk in a ditch in some major metropolitan area, smelling of urine and egg salad sandwiches and holding a sign saying I need money to repair my spaceship to go save the Ewok planet Endor.

Mr. Nykerk was unlike any other teacher I have ever had.  Even mundane tasks and procedures in his class were fun. We earned merits (multi-color stock paper cutouts with goofy hand drawings) for doing well on assignments and behaving in class. Every Friday, we could use these merits to enter a contest and, if we were in the top three points of anyone who entered that week, we got to sit in a comfortable padded chair behind a luxuriously large desk for the whole next week.

To learn about civics and economics, we campaigned for public office (my slogan was “Take a Chill Pill, Vote for Phil”), and wrote our own laws. Joey Dean’s father worked at some kind of place with a nice copy machine and he had far more and far nicer posters than anyone else, with full color photos and America flag trimmings. Still Joey didn't win since he was a spaz and always chewed on ball point pins. Then we created our own free market economy where we created our own businesses. Wes Rowh and I used glue guns, lifesavers, and Hershey’s kisses to create tiny trains made out of candy. My third grade teacher negotiated me down to half price on the trains while Wes was away and I felt guilty I had gone down so low. It’s probably good I never went into business.

When we learned about the Civil War, we got to reenact the battles in the cafeteria, dressed in uniforms and holding broomsticks as rifles. I can still remember seeing two students sitting outside Mr. “Don’t Break the Sugar Bowl” Harper’s office in fourth grade because they had brought their hunting rifles to school for these reenactments. My fifth grade year, Mr. Nykerk mentioned to us many times that we should not bring real guns to school.

After studying the Civil War, we learn about westward expansion and manifest destiny. One day, to help us learn about those brave Americans who traveled west in search of better fortunes, we got to trek into our computer lab full of Apple computers and play Oregon Trail. Mr. Nykerk promised us merits if we completed the game alive. I had played a bit of Oregon Trail the previous summer at a computer camp and I was determined to get those merits. While many of my classmates spent the majority of their money on bullets and used their time shooting at buffalo without making it out of Ohio, I choose the banker from Boston and used his generous bankroll to buy a well-balanced and ample load of supplies. To play it safe, I took ferries across all of the rivers to and left during April so I would not risk disease from the Rocky Mountain winter cold or getting my wagon stuck in the snow.  After nearly an hour of playing, all of my other classmates had lost their entire family and had returned back to the classroom, but I had beaten the game with all but one of my family members alive. My classmates were impressed and asked how I did it. I felt smart.

Every so often, I boot up the XT to see that little oxen dragging the little wagon behind it across the bright green grass. Now as an adult, I can see that the game is remarkably easy with simple mechanics that are little more than a series of random events that you need to be prepared for to win. However, the point of Oregon Trail isn't so much to challenge your problem solving skills, but to put you into history, into that covered wagon, to make you cringe when your little sister get bitten by a snake, to frustrate you into cursing the bandits who steal your last 4 sets of clothing and to enrage you into banging the keyboard when your bullet just missed that buffalo.

Few computer games in history have been able to make you feel so engaged in their world while offering such minimal game play, but, as you will see from many other games on this list, I love this style of game. Although few computer games take such a hard line towards story and immersion away from in depth game play, these kinds of games are capable of being unparalleled works of art in the realm of gaming, telling a compelling and engaging story in a different way than novels or movies. Oregon Trail stands after all these years as a shining example of this style of game play. Indeed it is a rare game that creates a moment where a shy fifth grade boy can be inspired to explain survival skills to the listening ears of his entire class.

1 comment:

  1. Oregon Trail really is one of those rare games that makes learning fun. Mr. Nykerk was on to something. I am glad I share some of the same fondness towards Oregon Trail. I remember playing in Valley's computer lab and also being the only one in class to win. I think it was due in large part to you teaching me to play.

    I like to think that if Mr. Nykerk is still teaching today his students are still playing Oregon Trail. Somehow I doubt Valley has those Apple computers any more though. At least we'll always have Oregon Trail.