Oregon Trail computer game

Bill Heinemann: Oregon Trail, Creativity, & Chess

Thanks to Amore Coffee for their support.

Fording rivers, hunting buffalo, and dying of dysentery—all while hitting spacebar—are some of the nostalgic highlights of the computer game Oregon Trail. The educational game about pioneer days and westward expansion sold more than 65 million copies and became a cultural phenomenon. It all started back in 1971 with three college students, one of whom has called West St. Paul home for nearly 50 years.

Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger were students at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., doing student teaching in Minneapolis schools. They were roommates at the time, and Heinemann and Dillenberger came home one day to find Rawitsch creating a board game to entice his students.

“That would be a perfect application for a computer program,” said Heinemann, launching the trio down the rabbit hole of creating Oregon Trail. In less than two weeks they would create the text-based teletype game (yeah, this pre-dated computer graphics) for Rawitsch’s students.

They loved it, lining up to play before and after class. But it was one project in a busy session of student teaching. Heinemann moved on. He spent a single year as a math teacher in Eden Prairie before switching to programming. Heinemann and his wife Gail moved to West St. Paul in 1973.

Heinnemann and his granddaughter playing Uno.

The Journey of Oregon Trail

That’s the extent of Heinemann’s involvement with Oregon Trail. The game’s history takes a winding route from there that’s every bit as harrowing as the journey it describes. After a month or two of Minneapolis students playing Oregon Trail, Rawitsch deleted the game at the end of the semester. But he did save a paper copy, and in 1974 Rawitsch added the game to the catalog of the Minnesota Education Computing Consortium (MECC), with the blessing of Heinemann and Dillenberger. From there it was played across Minnesota and the country, caught the eye of an early startup called Apple (ensuring its presence in classrooms), and was eventually recreated with the nostalgic graphics remembered today.

A number of recent articles have recounted the journey of Oregon Trail in a lot more detail:

  • City Pages did a 2011 story that covers the early history and eventual demise of MECC in the late 1990s.
  • Forbes chronicled the early mechanics of the game’s teletype origins.
  • VICE lets the trio tell the story in their own words.
  • A 2019 community cable TV story talks with Heinemann about the project.

You can play the 1990 version of Oregon Trail online. It also debuted as a card game in 2016.

“You’ll never find your passion unless you try a lot of things.”

Bill Heinemann

About Bill Heinemann

After helping create one of the biggest educational games in history, Heinemann spent 32 years as a programmer. Today he’s retired and has been teaching after-school chess and math teams for 15 years at Heritage and Moreland, among other schools.

Heinemann and his wife have three grown children and 10 grandchildren. Heinemann teaches Sunday School at Riverview Baptist Church and enjoys playing piano. Every two years he creates a “Political Party” with jokes and song parodies, lampooning candidates across the political spectrum. This year he had to do it via Zoom.

Conversation With Bill Heinemann

We talk with Heinemann about his experience with Oregon Trail, creativity, chess, and some of his favorite games.

Your work on Oregon Trail was almost 50 years ago and it has since become a cultural phenomenon. What’s been the most interesting thing about being involved in the origins of the game?

The most surprising thing about creating the Oregon Trail computer program is that after 20 years I got no recognition, but in the last 10 years there have been numerous documentaries, speaking engagements and other notoriety. 

Do you have any regrets about that? A lot of people would be bitter and angry about not getting recognition, but you seem to shrug it off. Why is that? 

In 1971 no one had their own computer. You couldn’t purchase or sell software. Bill Gates was a sophomore in high school. Computers were the size of 20 refrigerators. So it was quite natural that we didn’t try to market the program.

A few years later, when Apple Computer had gotten off the ground and hobbyists had their own computers, Creative Computing magazine asked to publish the code for Oregon Trail. In was written in BASIC which was an interpretive language. The code was not compiled—turned into computer language. Instead each line of code, when executed, was compiled. The upside is that the program was easy to modify. the downside is that anyone who played the program could also print out the code and type it in to their own computer and have a “pirated” copy. There was no way to effectively copyright anything written in BASIC. So I figured that at least we could share it with the world quickly by granting permission to publish the code in Creative Computing.

It’s like the wheel—nobody got a patent on the wheel. Somebody invented it before patents and the poor soul who invented it never got any recognition to this day. Nowadays it’s easy to find out who create the Oregon Trail computer program—just look it up in Wikipedia. But before Wikipedia how would anyone know unless they saved their issue of Creative Computing (like I did). [Here’s a glimpse of that 1978 article.]

You’ve talked before about the need to make games with redeeming qualities. Technology has obviously exploded since the original Oregon Trail. Are we making games—and other technology—with redeeming qualities today?

Many of the most popular programs nowadays are very violent, sexual, foul creations that no parent should allow their kids to play. Nor should any adult play them. Parents should check the ratings and read a synopsis of the game. I just did that myself and would reject Fortnite, Call of Duty, and numerous others.  

How do parents push their children in the direction of ‘redeeming qualities’ when games like Fortnite are so popular and ubiquitous?

Parents need to get more involved with their kid’s education. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced this. In some cases, parents have been appalled at what their kids are watching or even learning at school. There is a lot of bad stuff out there. There are a lot of tools out there that can be used for good or bad. Parents need to talk about what kinds of messages are appropriate. They need to discuss what to do when when they encounter something inappropriate. 

You saw the potential in Oregon Trail back at the start. Do you see anything similar today?  

Ironically, I never play computer simulation games—played one once with my grandchildren, but I don’t remember the name of it. Minecraft seem to be a hot and harmless game, but I haven’t played it myself. 

You and your friends created Oregon Trail as college students, out of necessity and idealism. What does it take to create something like that?

The essence of being human is to be creative. In Genesis, God creates man in his image. What had God been doing before that? Creating! Light, sky, oceans, stars, sun, moon, plants, animals. We are most satisfied when we create. Think of your hobbies—cooking, gardening, woodworking, painting, writing, sewing, model railroading, knitting, etc.—they are all creative. I think the success of Oregon Trail involved combining two different disciplines, history and computing, to use a computer in a new way.

What do you most enjoy about teaching kids chess and math? Why do you keep doing it?

I loved chess and math and enjoy passing on my passion to those interested. I enjoy watching the kids improve over the years. 

What does it take to get better? Is a natural talent required or can anyone get there with enough practice and work?

I’ve been fascinated by studying chess players. I taught my daughter and she became one of the top rated girls in the nation. As a result, we traversed the country finding competition. I talked to many of the parents and came to the conclusion that to become really good at anything you have to do it a lot. To do it a lot you have to love it. To love it you have to have some innate talent. So it takes talent and work—but the most important is love. And then it’s not work, it’s fun.

But you’ll never find your passion unless you try a lot of things. If Magnus Carlson never tried chess, think what the whole world would have missed. Sometimes kids don’t do very well at something and get discouraged. I encourage them to keep at it and give it a chance. If it still doesn’t click, it’s OK—you’ve eliminated one thing in your search for what you want to excel at.

For anyone stuck inside and playing some chess, can you give us some quick tips to play a little better?

I liked to set up a board and work through problems from a book. But nowadays it’s much easier to find chess lectures and lessons online. Focus on tactics like forks, pins, hurdles and skewers, discovered attacks. Setting up your own problems to solidify the ideas. 

Some good books include Guide to Good Chess by C. J. S. Purdy (very readable) and I grew up on Chess Made Simple by Milton Hanauer. Similar books with insulting names are The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Chess by Patrick Wolf or Chess for Dummies.

In the photo above, you’re playing Uno with your granddaughter. What are some of your favorite games?

Our favorite games are UNO, Up the River, chess, The Amazing Labyrinth, Settlers of Catan, Niagara, Ticket to Ride, and Puerto Rico.

For group games:

  • Bowls: Two teams, everyone submits six words into a big bowl. Round 1: Say things to get a teammate say the word. See how many you can get in one minute. Used words go into second bowl. Pass the bowl to team two. Pass until bowl is empty. Round 2: Say only one word. Round 3: No words—just charades. 
  • Crazy UNO: If a card matches exactly you can play it no matter whose turn it is, zero means everyone passes entire hand to the next person, 
  • The Great Dalmuti
  • Dictionary

What do you love about West St. Paul? 

I like the location—less traffic than some areas of the cities. Also, we’re east of most of the city which means you don’t drive into the sun in the morning or evening. Low taxes relative to other areas. Good shopping, good opportunities for the children. Good places to walk, good shopping, lots of restaurants. 

Thanks to Bill Heinemann for sharing his thoughts with us.

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