The Reading Matrix
Vol. 3, No. 3, November 2003

The Oregon Trail
Reviewed by
Ching-Fen Wu


The Oregon Trail


Publisher Contact Information:
The Learning Company,
500 Redwood Boulevard, Novato, CA 94947 U. S. A.
Language: English
Target Audience: Age 8 & Up


Windows 95/98 or NT version 4.0, 2000* or later, or Macintosh

Minimum hardware requirements: for PC

PC Compatible  Macintosh
Windows 95/98/ME/2000/XP
166 MHz Pentium Processor
100 MB Free Hard Disk Space
8x speed CD-ROM Drive
Windows Compatible Sound Card
16 Bit Color Display
Windows Compatible Mouse

Minimum hardware requirements: for Macintosh

System 8.6-9.1 and OS X
180 MHz PowerPC Processor
100 MB Free Hard Disk Space
8x speed CD-ROM Drive
Sound Card and Speakers
Thousands Color Display, 16 Bit

As the mother of two children, eight and eleven, I chose to review The Oregon Trail 5th Edition , Adventure along the Oregon Trail , an interactive computer game. Designed for children of ages 9 & up, it advertises “a trailblazing simulation that builds real-life skills”. It aims to “strengthen [the student's] skills in math, language arts, and logical reasoning.” In addition to teaching history and geography, it also enhances the student's “understanding of the diverse cultural issues prevalent in the 19th century.”

The program was easy to boot up as long as the system requirements were met. The main menu includes, in addition to uninstall , options of play, which begins the player's adventure on the trail , demos, which provides information about other products from this company, and Montgomery Journal, a printable version of a journal kept by a family on the trail. There is also a User's Guide . Depending upon the player's familiarity with the game, or on preference, he or she can choose to read the Montgomery Journal and the User's Guide or to proceed directly to playing the game. In fact, there are two main concepts, which are interwoven throughout the game. The first is the trail adventure, the survival game, in which the player becomes a character in a wagon train heading west. The second is the story of the Montgomery family and Captain Jed Freedman - the game's main characters. The Montgomery family, traveling west with the help of trail guide Captain Jed, relate the trip in the journal they keep along the trail, which is highlighted by twelve animated adventure scenes. In the scenes, Captain Jed tells the story to the children next to a campfire with music. The purpose of the story is to give “players a better understanding of life on the trail” and make “their experience in the simulation adventure more engaging and meaningful.”

Prior to starting a new game, the player must first create a character and obtain supplies. The player creates a character by using the pull-down lists to select an occupation, starting date, and so on. The skill level the player chooses - Greenhorn, Adventurer, or Trail Guide - affects the level of difficulty of the game by giving fewer or more situations for which the player has to make decisions.

After choosing the character, the wagon party and the level of difficulty, the player is then sent to the town to purchase supplies and animals for the journey. The player can either purchase a basic package of goods or customize supplies by shopping around in town by buying goods and animals at the various stores.

Once the journey begins, the player will see the Main Travel screen. This screen shows either a picture of the player's current location or a map of the area being traveled through. The Main Travel screen also allows the player to access important resources such as the User's Guide or the Montgomery Journal. The player can check the health of the wagon party and keep track of supplies in the wagon. He/she can try to understand one family's life on the trail by seeing scenes from the Montgomery family's journey and hearing Captain Jed's stories. In addition to the family's journal entries, the Montgomery Journal provides drawings of places along the trail.

       As the player travels along the trail, he/she encounters many physical obstacles such as rivers, deserts and hills. To find ways to overcome these obstacles, the player is provided with options: consult the Guide Book, talk to the people you meet on the trail, or visit with the Montgomery family and learn from their adventures. The player also encounters various towns, forts, and trading posts along the trail, where he/she can stop for a visit and to replenish supplies. The player may choose to record the journey by keeping a diary at any time during the game. In addition to this personal diary, the program diary keeps an automatic record of the major events that occur and the landmarks that the player visits. The player can add comments and observations to the diary at any time.

The software can be helpful for children of various ages in such areas as reading, strategic thinking, planning, life skills, and decision-making. As a parent of two children who learn English as a second language, however, I chose to purchase it because it requires the player to read thoughtfully and carefully in order to successfully maneuver through the game. To be good players of the game, children must read the Montgomery Journal and the Guide Book. In addition to encouraging active reading, this game helps children develop listening skills by offering a wide range of accents from the people met on the journey, and including many colloquial expressions. Players may listen as often as they want. Scripts of what the advisers say are shown on the screen as well, which allows the children to compensate for what they might miss in listening. Generally, the software requires ESL children to have intermediate reading proficiency, which is about the reading level of English native-speaking third graders. However, my daughter, a novice English learner, manages to play it with her brother's assistance. Children can choose to make their own diary entries of their adventure, and these can be accumulated as components of their journey tales. The final score can be displayed if the player desires. The final score depends on how many wagon members survive and how much money and supplies are in stock; yet these criteria are not explicitly explained to the player. Some information is provided about getting extra points on the basis of skills players have and occupations they choose. There is no evaluation of the player's writing in the diaries, and no vocabulary or grammar help is provided. The game does not provide children with opportunities to reflect on their own writing and improve it. [ Reflecting on writing or improving writing skills is not among the goals the company lists in its advertisement. The opportunity for a player to work on writing skills might come by way of a parent, tutor or teacher. Ed. ]

Overall I found the game helpful and educational for my children. It also aroused their interests in reading relevant books about old western immigrants' stories and about wagon trains. There are a few significant drawbacks. First, the time needed to complete one game is long. Second, the cursor froze quite frequently, requiring a reboot of the computer. This sometimes happened when the game was just started. The technical support is obviously an essential aspect to improve in the game. [ Ms. Wu has a Compaq FS740 computer running Microsoft Windows XP. Ed.] I did not find any connection to troubleshooting information from within the game, and there appears to be no telephone number for technical support in the documentation that comes with the game.

Ching-Fen Wu obtained a Master's degree in the Teaching English as a Second Language Program at the University of Arizona in 1989. She taught freshman English at National Chiayi University in Chiayi , Taiwan for twelve years. At present she is a doctoral student in the Department of Language, Reading and Culture at the University of Arizona . Her research interest is educational technology in teaching English as a second language.