Playing the ‘Oregon Trail’ Made Me Murderino

It’s the 50th anniversary of the most terrible video game ever created. It’s graphic, it’s sadistic, and it’s on Windows 95 at the Springfield Public Library in New Jersey. Mortal Kombat and Street fighter Wish they had what this cyber-Americana had.

Oregon Trail.

To give you some context, I was 7 years old when I started playing OT 1996. And I’m not an exception – most people my age have been introduced to this educational hellscape in grade school.

At that point in my life, my Orthodox Jewish parents wouldn’t let me see action movies or even a lot of news because of how obscene and obscene they could say. I can’t watch Superman because of the violence, but I was encouraged to play a computer game that often ended with my livestock drowning in the river, my family members starving to death, and I searched for words like dysentery in the dictionary. (Fortunately, if you’re playing OT, You may have been in a library or classroom.)

I love how-realistic it is. There are no big bangs or aliens on the Oregon Trail. You don’t have to fight giant one-eyed tentacle monsters or smash buildings like a radioactive monkey.

When you fail to reach a level, the screen will not show “Game over! Play again? Y/N.” It shows you the gravestones of your dead family members and explains in detail with pictures how they have weathered the elements. When your loved ones pass away, what they get most is a pop-up as part of the fastest roadside funeral imaginable.

The creators at MECC didn’t sugarcoat one bit of that game for the sake of our little ones. Sometimes your wife gets cholera on the same day your son is bitten by a snake. Face to face with it. You can be united by something as morbid as diphtheria (the thing that coats your throat in a deadly thick layer of gray matter) or as innocent as a broken leg. You can even get rid of the hazy ghost of exhausted, a fun lesson for kids that just being tiresome on the trail can be life-threatening.

This text-based 1800s Western Expansion Simulator is my introduction to traumatic porn and my gateway drug to a lifelong obsession with true crime. I’m not the only one – you’ve probably heard, but the 20-, 30- and 40 sin really haunts.

As Oregon Trail made me realize I could, theoretically, die from a snake bite, documents like Be a murderer made me realize I could, in theory, go to jail by unwittingly confessing to a murder I had nothing to do with.

I have absorbed OT when I was a kid, like how I got into series like Jinx and Bandage as an adult and now it’s clear why: True crime content allows you to watch horrific real-life situations unfold for strangers, so there’s no direct consequence to your personal life. Friend. You have to experience trauma from a long distance.

Of course, you feel bad about what’s going on, but you can’t look away. You’ll have to be a monster to not experience some degree of empathy while trying your way through a series devoted to small-town murders and/or cult victims. Knowing this is happening to real people is something that is pleasing to the eye and why it is not uncommon for people to feel guilty while watching, such as staring at a car wreck by the side of the road.

Humans are naturally curious, and I suppose there’s nothing more interesting than watching “what if?” situations that never actually happen (until they do) with real people. The darker the story, the harder it is to look away. Furthermore, everyone in the documentary looks like normal people, so it’s not hard to put yourself in their shoes.

Be a murderer not hot Hollywood actors with engaging courtroom monologues. Members of that Manitowoc jury could be from any small town, including mine, and half of the people I grew up with were Brendan Dassey-esque wrestling fans. Levines could easily be Springfield’s Averys. (Except for 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 feels personal because it’s easy to picture yourself in the game. It kept me up all night thinking how if I was born just 100 years earlier, I would sure died of typhoid and was buried at one of those magnificent roadside funerals.

They even let you name your family members in the game, and I will always name them after my own. This means that every time I play, Levines will stay still and head to the West… then all of them slowly die.

I felt as if I was failing my family when inevitably a line popped up informing me that “Tamar Levine has died of cholera.” No real deposit for me, but I feel invested. The same way I do today when I watch documentaries about serial killers – as if I myself were a bystander at risk of becoming a victim.

I always thought Oregon Trail made by the same people who made first-person shooter games like Call of Duty because of how brutal it was. To me, part of the appeal is that it’s like a violent video game you can play in the library. Turned out, OT Developed purely as an educational device. (In retrospect, I feel stupid that this fact surprised me.)

This game’s origin story couldn’t be less edgy. It was created in 1971 by a higher education student named Don Rawitsch who was looking for a new way to teach his 8th graders about American history. He did a board game about Western expansion, and then two of his friends coded the concept for the screenless Teletype computer. By no means is it turning into nightmare fuel.

Creators Oregon Trail doesn’t get enough credit for giving bored, tired ’90s kids their first taste of real crime. They were mean innovators who exposed us to graphic content under the guise of educational enrichment and created one of the most enduring video games in the process.

Do I spend every night on Wikipedia in Wild Wild Country rabbit hole as an adult if I hadn’t experienced life on the Oregon Trail as a child? Hard to say. On the other hand, it is nearly impossible to remove the obsession, and as much as my parents and Rabbi at Rav Tetiz’s Mesivta Hebrew Academy tried to protect me from the brutal outside world, there Maybe it was inevitable. There is too much trauma porn out there. If it’s not OT, it will probably be Unsolved Mysteries run again or even just Everyone magazine I would secretly swipe from the waiting room at my father’s law office.

On the other hand, being a silver-haired 7-year-old who knew the dictionary definition of suffocation incorrectly choked my inner fear. If so, then that is the basis for curiosity about how horrible, random, and fascinating real life can be. Playing the ‘Oregon Trail’ Made Me Murderino


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