Sunday, July 19, 2015

"You have died of dysentery."

Do you recognize the title of this blog? If you don’t recognize it then you probably were not born in the second half of the 70s or in the 80s, not a schoolteacher (or former schoolteacher), and either not the parent of a child born in the 70s or 80s or else (if you did have children during those decades) your memory is failing you. You have died of dysentery is a computer screen message from The Oregon Trail, which is generally considered to be the first computer game of the technological age. To an in-between “half-generation” of people who grew up on the cusp of the technological explosion that ushered in the Digital Age (straddling “Gen X” and “Millennials”) Oregon Trail represents the moment that changing technology and communication systems began to exponentially transform our lives.

To that half-generation, playing Oregon Trail in computer lab at school was the most exciting part of the school day. Oregon Trail was a phenomenon that binds together many people of a certain age in a common cultural experience. The game was invented in 1971 by Don Rawitsch when he was doing his student teaching to get his teaching credential in Minnesota. In 1974, Rawitsch took a job at Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC), which developed educational software for the classroom. He recreated his Oregon Trail and made it accessible to schools for free across Minnesota through MECC. The original game was designed to teach school children about the realities of 19th century pioneer life on the Oregon Trail. The player assumes the role of a wagon leader guiding his/her party of settlers from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon's Willamette Valley on the Oregon Trail via a covered wagon in 1848. The first commercial version of Oregon Trail was made for the Apple II in 1978, many years before my children were born. Subsequent more sophisticated versions appeared in the 80s and 90s, and these were the ones my children played, both at home (we bought it) and at school.

Dying of dysentery was but one of a host of dreadful experiences that occurred to the hapless Oregon Trail player. The game is not a race to see who can get to Oregon first. It’s an obstacle course of dangers and ills, and the objective is to get to Oregon alive. The game is fraught with trauma. To start with, the player (the wagon leader) gets to name all the people in his/her party. These people (and sometimes the wagon leader) are soon systematically killed off by dysentery, cholera, measles, diphtheria, typhoid, snake bite, and drowning. Sometimes you (the player) just lays down and dies, or, as the screen says, “You have exhaustion.” People sometimes have their oxen die so they can’t proceed along the trail or they have everything they own stolen (including all their food, resulting in starvation). On the upside, the player gets to write up the tombstones for the dead. The problem with this is that eight-year-olds shouldn’t be allowed to write tombstones. (RIP Fanny. You had a big butt.) One screen says All of the people in your party have died. Press space bar to continue. Why would you want to? The fact that children loved this game says something about the morbid fascination of children with the horrors of life, especially horrors from the “olden days.”

The main attraction of Oregon Trail was that it was the first sophisticated computer game this half-generation encountered. If you ask someone who grew up playing the game what they loved most about Oregon Trail, more often than not they will tell you “shooting buffalo.” Here I was thinking my children were playing an educational game and in fact they were reenacting the extinction of the buffalo, which contributed to the genocide of millions of indigenous people in North America. The game was absolutely not PC. The “Indians” in the game helped the settlers find their way across a river in exchange for sweaters. (I don’t think so.) For better or worse, millions of young people vividly remember the details of this supposedly educational first computer game. What they learned from it was not what it was invented to teach.

My children were the first generation to grow up with a household computer. Things were changing so quickly in those years, that while my older two children remember the advent of the internet, my youngest doesn’t. My oldest child went away to college without a computer and used the computer lab at the college library until she inherited her grandmother’s desktop computer in her sophomore year. By the time the youngest left home for college seven years later he had a laptop as well as a smartphone that brought the world to the palm of his hand. His college required that incoming students bring a laptop with them. My middle son participated in “LAN parties” in high school. These consisted of a group of teenagers, usually boys, who took their clunky enormous desktop computers to one person’s house for the night and they connected all the computers in a network (on the dining room table, in a sea of cables) and played games on their computers with each other. Now, a dozen years later, he is a web developer.

I recently had a series of conversations with my children and one of my nephews about what it was like growing up in the advent of the Digital Age. My oldest recollected the days when she had to save her work on a floppy disk and when she would chat with friends on her computer, but could only do so when they were in the same room with her. She was born in 1984 and remembers life before the internet. My son who was born in 1987 feels like he had one foot in the pre-technology age and one foot in the Digital Age. He said there is a small group of individuals born in the late 80s and early 90s  (that half-generation I refer to) who grew up smack in the middle of a Tsunami of transformation. Their experience is unique because they straddled this enormous change like no other people. However, my nephew pointed out that exactly when young people moved from pre-Digital to Digital varied by where they lived and when they acquired access to the internet. Rural children didn’t have access until satellite dishes appeared. Low-income children didn’t have access as quickly as children in families with enough money to connect to the internet and buy computers and other “tech-toys.” My nephew’s family was poor and he viewed computers and the internet as “a luxury thing” (his words) that only rich kids had. When my youngest child came along, he became one of the first people to be raised as “digital natives,” meaning people who grew up with computers and the internet as a regular part of their lives. But my youngest, that digital native, vividly remembers playing Oregon Trail (even the older versions of it).

My older two children belonged to the very last group of young people to graduate from high school without social media being part of their growing-up experience. By the time my youngest finished high school, however, communication through Facebook was the norm. It’s quite possible for siblings (not even those far apart in age) to have had entirely different technology experiences growing up because things were changing so rapidly during that time.

All of my children say they can remember using pay phones. All of them remember our first dial-up connection to the internet, and then how life changed when their dad bought our Starband satellite dish and internet service. My own life changed dramatically. I was able to quit my job and work from home as a writer because of that satellite dish. Me, someone who grew up with a rotary phone in my house. Heck, when I was a child the local baker drove through our neighborhood two mornings each week in a horse-drawn carriage and came to the door with a tray of breads and baked goods for my mother to peruse. I have gone from that childhood to someone who spends my entire work day on the computer, someone who Skyped my father and cousins in Israel yesterday morning. I can’t help but wonder what awaits us around the corner. What more changes are in store? They can’t possibly be as dramatic as what we’ve been through. Or can they? In the 1860s settlers were dying in their covered wagons pulled by oxen on the 2,200-mile Oregon Trail. A hundred years later, when my family went to live in Scotland for a year, we flew from New York to Glasgow in one day. Less than 50 years since we flew to Scotland, I can see and speak to my father in Israel on my home computer. 

I mean it. What’s next? Surprise me!

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