The Oregon Trail’s Cultural Bias

The Oregon Trail - Menu Screen

One of the few experiences I had with video games when I was younger was in the elementary school computer lab. Looking back, I have fond memories of loading my friends onto Conestoga wagons, and hoping none of them died of dysentery or drowned in a freak river fording accident before I made it to Oregon. When I was younger I never questioned what the game was supposed to be teaching me and, instead, focused on the game play itself.  I enjoyed that I was able to make decisions and, in turn, see how these decisions could change the course of the narrative. Recently I was reminded of this game and wanted to see if there were any scholarly articles discussing the aspects of game play. Instead, I found this article that drew attention to the historical inaccuracy of the game. Goodbye, childhood.

On Google Scholar I found Bill Bigelow’s article titled “On the Road to Cultural Bias: A critique of ‘The Oregon Trail’ CD-ROM.” This article, albeit dated, still provides interesting points about serious, learning-based games. Although the article praised the use of technology (which is funny to read because the state-of the-art technology at the time was the CD-ROM) it also criticized the educational focus of the game, which promotes a biased and inaccurate representation of the 1840 and 50s. Bigelow, who for his critique focused specifically on Oregon Trail II, argued the game “is sexist, racist, culturally insensitive and contemptuous of the earth” (47).

Bigelow specifically critiques the white, male dominance of Oregon Trail II. From the game’s opening there is a clear distinction between classes. The player is immediately provided with the opportunity to establish an identity: he or she can choose a profession and purchase supplies but then the ranges of their character-based decisions are limited. Players, when establishing their identities, are not able to deviate from the default white, male prototype.

Although female characters undeniably appear throughout the game, their roles are frequently overshadowed and mixed up with that of the male characters. In his research of gender roles, Bigelow found “women and men experienced the Trail very differently” (47). In the Oregon Trail II, masculine tasks such as hunting and wagon construction are performed by either gender, which Bigelow argues “privileges men’s experiences and virtually erases women’s experience.” (48)

This white dominance also continues later in the game. The American African presence, which is extremely brief, serves to only check the box off for having multiculturalism within the game. Those African American characters that do appear are not provided with any back-story and are characterized only by their blatant antebellum dialect and reliance on the dominant, white males.

Native American and white race relations are also portrayed inaccurately. While those traveling along the trail and the Native American tribes were historically portrayal as enemies, Oregon Trail II makes a point to portray their relationship in a deliberately friendly way. The game does not touch on devastation of the National American cultures nor does it touch on the fear of those traveling west. In addition all tribes are robbed of identity by being described as amorphous entities known as “nations” (50).

Oregon Trail Hunt ScreenAlthough I am not surprised that the historical content of the game is inaccurate, I had not previously realized there could be repercussions because of the games popularity. The extent of Oregon Trail II’s inaccuracy is especially problematic because of the amount of children it reached in the early 90’s. I had also never considered, as Bigelow does multiple times, placing the blame entirely on the game programmers for creating such a cultural bias. Oregon Trail II and the rest of the games in the franchise were so successful because they provided an interactive, first person experience with which children found they could easily relate.  Although my educational game experience is limited to Oregon Trail, I wonder if others games like this still exists. Has another serious, educational game been just as successful, or is this a phenomenon unique to Oregon Trail?

Bonus Video:[youtube][/youtube]

  3 comments for “The Oregon Trail’s Cultural Bias

  1. Isaac Whalen
    February 27, 2013 at 11:20 pm

    Nice review of a scholarly article. Bigelow’s argument does raise some notable facts about stereotypes and period pieces. It is easy for games to fall into negative tropes, but is also just as easy for game developers to go to far in trying to correct these.

    Maybe it’s because I didn’t read the article itself but I’m curious how both geneders doing the same tasks (such as hunting and construction) favor the male experience? If anything shouldn’t this be a good thing? Also, don’t you get to choose you name, where as gender and ethnicity is not specifically stated? This would allow, i my opinion, the possibility for the player to interpret and construct an kind of character they want.

  2. Haley
    February 28, 2013 at 3:15 am

    This is a great post, and I agree with Isaac that you’ve reviewed Bigelow’s work quite well.

    My question here, and one that I don’t really have the answer to, is how the fact that this narrative is played out through a video game affects the various elements Bigelow is critiquing. Problematic narratives about Manifest Destiny, the push West and race relations between white settlers and people of color are nothing new, and exist in every imaginable medium, but what changes, or is unique, when that medium is a video game?

    I think the interactivity offered by games is significant. You mention that in Oregon Trail the player must experience the story as a white man. This means that every choices the player makes is carried out in-game by a white male avatar. Although the player is faced with some elements they can’t control (that pesky dysentery, for example), any choices they make about their situation, any power they exert in the game, is mediated through the on-screen avatar. Does making the character controlled by the player, in some senses the most powerful in the game, a white man give added power to that sexist, racist narrative Bigelow is describing?

    Like I said, I’m not certain about the concepts I’m toying with here, and it’s also 2 AM. But I feel like there’s a great deal to be explored in the relationship between a game’s narrative, the on-screen avatar, and the way that avatar affects the way an interactive narrative is experienced.

    • March 10, 2013 at 1:22 pm
      Problematic narratives about Manifest Destiny, the push West and race relations between white settlers and people of color are nothing new, and exist in every imaginable medium, but what changes, or is unique, when that medium is a video game?

      Could be as simple as the idea that, since Oregon Trail is a winnable game, it constructs the associated historical condition as an eventual, inevitable outcome, as opposed to, say, an open question?

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