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‘The Oregon Trail’ is back—and a little less racist

Can a game that’s about colonization become more culturally sensitive if the premise stays the same? A new edition of ‘The Oregon Trail’ wrestles with exactly that.

‘The Oregon Trail’ is back—and a little less racist
[Image: Gameloft]
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The Oregon Trail holds a special place in the hearts of many millennials who grew up playing it on desktop computers at school. It told the story of heroic, mid-19th-century “pioneers” who grabbed a wagon and raced out West, dodging snake bites and cholera to eventually reach the promised land and claim their own little piece of paradise.

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For many Indigenous people, however, The Oregon Trail told a darker narrative. It was a story of reckless expansion and colonialism, which would displace many Native American populations and fuel a great inequity that lives on today.

[Image: Gameloft]
A new version of The Oregon Trailout now for iOS devices that subscribe to Apple Arcade—begins to wrestle with this tension. Developed by an Australian team at Gameloft, a prominent mobile game developer, the new version mostly plays like the old Oregon Trail you know. You get a wagon, buy supplies, and gather a team to join you on the journey. Along the trail, you ford rivers, break legs, and shoot way too many pounds of buffalo to possibly carry back.

What’s different is that Native American history scholars gave input. That input led to more human, and historically accurate, representations of Indigenous people, culminating in the first playable Native American characters in any Oregon Trail game. The original game was all about claiming a homestead in the West. That’s still true, but additional journeys take Indigenous characters to new (and historically accurate) places. One is of a Pawnee mother and son who are heading toward a winter camp. Another follows the path of the Lenape Halfmoon family as they search for a lost relative.

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[Image: Gameloft]
The narratives are designed to capture a broader portrait of this historical moment compared with that of the traditional game. “The way that we balanced this . . . was to not beat people over the head with an expository history lesson,” says Jarrad Trudgen, creative director of Gameloft Brisbane, “but to instead focus on including a Native American perspective in a natural way and simply treat Native American characters as three-dimensional human beings—not reduce them to their ‘Indian-ness.'”

Margaret Huettl, assistant professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska and a Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe descendant herself, took on the consulting job with some trepidation. Her worries were assuaged during her first conversation with the design team, when they asked her if it was possible for them to include Indigenous characters on the wagon train. She felt it was thoughtful, and a good sign of the team’s direction. “We were able to show evidence of native people who traveled west on various trails for a lot of different reasons, especially as their lands in places like Oklahoma were taken by non-native people and pushed West,” says Huettl. “It’s conceivable that native people would have been working for those wagon trains.”

Initially, Gameloft put these native characters into the role of guide. Huettl and her team pointed out that, by the mid-19th century, many native people east of the Mississippi River had more typical jobs. “They were carpenters. They were farmers. They were more than guides and hunters,” says Huettl. “And [Gameloft] incorporated that feedback.”

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[Image: Gameloft]
With 574 native nations in the United States, each with a unique tribal identity, Huettl also emphasized it was important not to lump them all together. So characters are introduced with specific tribal identification. And the tribes you encounter are specific to the region where you are during your journey.

Of course, the design team initially got plenty of things wrong that needed to be fixed. Huettl and her colleagues were asked to review early artwork, scripts, and even music, examining these assets for accuracy. The cultural blind spots were quickly spotted. Huettl suggested that perhaps not every native character should have a braid. And using the word pioneer to frame the story line was axed, as the very word implies a Manifest Destiny in white expansion.

[Image: Gameloft]
The names of native characters, too, was a big issue. “They had placeholder names. This is not to make fun of anybody, but if you don’t know how to find a native name, you’ll search native names, and you’ll get the babybook.com version,” says Huettl with a laugh. “We had to point out that some of those weren’t actually native names, and we went to tribal roles and treaty documents to find the most common last names and find first names.” Some characters in the game use the names given to them by their tribes, others have more European-inspired names.

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The character name “Halfmoon,” now used in The Oregon Trail, is a perfect example of how complicated the history of naming can be. Halfmoon was a popular Lenape name, but it was likely a transliteration of a Lenape word: an amalgamation that allowed the European ear to pronounce it. “For the Lenape, this was a time when the federal government was really involved in their lives, and doing a lot of surveillance, and forcing names on them,” says Huettl. “Sometimes there was an aspect, ‘We need to make you legible, and we need to assign these names.'” These naming details, while small, capture the messy reality of how colonization impacted the lives of Indigenous people.

For all of Gameloft’s efforts to portray a more accurate history, it still glosses over many atrocities. After playing The Oregon Trail for an hour, I didn’t see a lot of references to Indigenous people—or at least not as many as I expected. Part of that reason is that you don’t unlock those story lines until playing more of the game. Instead, native characters are peppered in here and there, alongside Black characters. The game also consulted with a historian of African American history, and it includes a new journey with James Beckwourth, a Black trapper who spent time living with the Crow tribe. But when you reach the end of the game with Black characters, they celebrate with all the same glee of white characters—which ignores that Oregon implemented powerful Black exclusion laws for settlers during this time.

[Image: Gameloft]
In this sense, the game’s white perspective remains largely unchanged from the original. I asked Huettl how she felt about that. It’s still called The Oregon Trail, after all. It’s still mostly a glorification of colonialism, whereas, by contrast, the game When Rivers Were Trails—developed by 30 Indigenous contributors for PC and macOS in 2019—is something closer to the Oregon Trail from a native perspective.

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“That was a question I asked myself: Should this even be made? It is ultimately still a settler-centered game about American expansion,” says Huettl. Ultimately, she decided the game would be made either way, and she liked the team working on it.

“It’s so nostalgic, it’s something a lot of people are playing. It’s something my nieces still play in school, and I would rather not have them playing the old inaccurate version where the people who look like their ancestors are oversimplified, one-dimensional characters sometimes portrayed as villains,” says Huettl. “. . . And then of course, I grew up playing the game too. When you’re Native American, there’s so little media out there that represents us at all, and the very few things that represent us don’t always represent us positively . . . if I could contribute in some way to making our representation a little better, that was something I wanted to use my expertise to participate in.”

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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