“Today, you will be playing a classic computer game,” I announced, as the video game club shuffled into the library computer lab for their monthly meeting. “Oregon Trail is a historical fiction game where you guide a wagonload of settlers across the plains to a new life on the American frontier.”
The kids clicked the link I had prepared for them on the school’s server. “Mrs. H?” one said as he opened the game’s title screen. “This doesn’t look right.”
“You will be disappointed in the graphics, but I expect you to get over it. This game was played by the people who grew up to make games for people like you. You will respect the history of this.”
The club, mostly eighth graders who thought they were signing up to play Halo, groaned collectively.
“As an added incentive,” I said, “I have here in my pocket five dollars cash for the first among you to reach Willamette Valley and thereby beat the game.”
Excited murmurs filled the room. David, an introspective library assistant, smiled as he said, “How hard can it be?” while Mike, my star pupil, was already spending all of his money on bullets.
The students chatted amiably as they prepared for the journey. They were delighted to discover they could name all their party members. Tom named his party members after his friends, including Justin, who was sitting next to him.
“That will make it awkward when they all die,” I said.
“You can die on this game?!” Tom squeaked.
“But you can continue, right? Or start again from the graveyard?”
“Sweetie, this game is old. They hadn’t invented continues yet, or spawn points, or health packs. This game is cold, hard, and brutal.”
A cheerful song rang out from Mike’s speakers as he began his journey with nothing but a wagon full of ammo.
“Ignore the song,” I said. “Brutal. Don’t forget it.”
The wagon train proceeded smoothly at first, but then they were beset by hardship. What had seemed like clever character names in the beginning began to look ridiculous when illness set in.
“Kirby has dysentery!” someone shouted.
“Ate the wrong enemy, I imagine,” I said, eliciting laughter from the students.
“Yomama has measles!” said another.
“Let’s not bandy insults during club time,” I said, grinning.
“House has typhoid!”
“It’s never Lupus,” I said, but the laughter grew strained as each player encountered difficulties of his own.
“Thieves stole my bullets!” David proclaimed in astonishment. “Why wasn’t I able to shoot them?”
“At least you’re still alive,” said Justin. “I died of dyslexia!”
I had to think about that one for a moment. “Do you maybe mean dysentery?”
“I died because they wouldn’t let me buy food!” said Chris.
“What do you mean they wouldn’t let you?” I asked.
“It wasn’t for sale in any of the towns I stopped at.”
“Why didn’t you hunt?” I asked.
Chris stared at me in uncomprehending silence.
“I’ll let you think about that for awhile, okay?”
“What the?” David shouted, drawing my attention. “Renee has a snake bite. How on earth did she get a snake bite? She’s on the wagon! Who told that girl to get off the wagon? This child is special! Now I have to rescue this child ‘cause she got a snake bite and she prolly gonna die.”
“She might live,” I said comfortingly.
“No, she gonna die,” he said, without hope.
When Jamal’s self-named character died, I guided him through the process of filling out the tombstone (“Here lies Jamal. He was the best.”) as other students looked on, like rubberneckers at the scene of a pileup.
Others were less sentimental about the game’s unforgiving nature. “Here lies Mario. Stupid typhoid,” aptly portrayed the sentiments of the moment, as did “Here lies Renee. I told you she was gonna die.”
When Tom’s Justin died, he sheepishly turned to the real Justin, who glared. Voice heavy with heartfelt sincerity, Tom asked, “What do you want your tombstone to say?”
Through gritted teeth, Justin replied, “I’m with stupid.”
Disease wracked their bodies. Bones were broken. Oxen drowned. One by one, parties fell by the wayside.
“Forget it,” Jamal muttered, giving up. “I’m gonna do math homework instead.”
At the last minute, David came unhinged. “Now Zeke has a snake bite! Jee-sus Christ! Who keeps telling these people to get off the wagon? These people are stupid! You know what? I’m done. Oregon just isn’t gonna be populated. It’s a mythical land that don’t exist.” So saying, he gathered his things and left the library, followed by the others.
Alone in the library with Mike, I watched as he used the keyboard’s arrow keys to steer his wagon down the Columbia River and into Willamette Valley. As I slipped him the five dollars, I asked, “What did you think?”
“It was fun,” he said. “I don’t know what they were complaining about.”
“Well, Mike,” I said. “Some people just aren’t prepared to face the harsh realities of life. Just… well, do me a favor and don’t tell David you won.”
Mike smiled. “But, Mrs. H, what about facing the harsh realities of life?”
“Plenty of time for that later,” I said.
“Like maybe next month?” Mike asked.
“Sure,” I said. “Wait ‘til you see what we’re playing then.”