If you played games on your elementary school computer in the late 80s and early 90s, if you ever crossed a river in an ox-drawn cart, or if your avatar ever died of dysentery, then chances are you’ve come across the work of R. Philip Bouchard.
Bouchard, a 1976 graduate of the University of Georgia, is a lifelong science educator, nature photographer, writer and, you guessed it, creator of the classic 1980s version of The Oregon Trail.
To be clear, Bouchard didn’t invent the iconic game.
The first iteration of the computer game, called Oregon, was designed in the early 1970s by three student teachers who were hobbyist software designers. In this game, players bought supplies, hunted for food, and tried to survive the journey west. The entire game was text-only. The computer printed prompts and players typed in their answers. To shoot wild game for food, you had to quickly and perfectly type the word “bang” when you were there.
But odds are what you remember most about The Oregon Trail: controlling a third-person shooter to hunt bison, squirrels, and bears; stop at famous sites to buy supplies; and having family members sick with cholera, typhoid and, yes, dysentery – were all unique to the revamped 1985 game created by the Bouchard-led team at software company MECC.
From science to software
From an early age, Bouchard was fascinated by learning about the world around him. He remembers wandering the woods near his Cobb County neighborhood as a kid with a tree identification book trying to tell one oak from another and which pine was which.
“I developed a strong interest in nature,” he says. “From then on, I would give nature tours to a younger brother and neighbors.”
As an honors student at the University of Georgia, Bouchard pursued all sorts of interests. He majored in botany and explored the concepts of ecology. But in his senior year, he enrolled in a computer programming course and learned how to write code; at that time, everything was done on punched cards. He was hooked.
Bouchard will earn his master’s degree from the University of Texas, where he will learn to program computer models to understand how different factors create ecological change. And thanks to this, he honed his skills in educational computer programming. This experience helped him land a job at MECC, a software company specializing in K-12 educational software. Oregon was one of his most popular programs.
An opportunity arises
As computer games began to explode in the early 1980s, Bouchard urged his bosses to update MECC’s flagship game with better graphics and new features. In 1984, the company agreed and put Bouchard in charge of the five-person team tasked with reinventing The Oregon Trail.
In addition to the team and design lead Bouchard, the group consisted of lead programmer John Krenz, lead artist Charolyn Kapplinger, researcher Shirly Keran, and programmer Bob Granvin.
The team’s two directives were: 1) to capture the magic of the original game and 2) to create an exciting version that would succeed in the “home market”, just as personal computers were booming.
For inspiration, Bouchard turned to arcade games and what worked well on Commodore 64 and Atari home systems.
“I’ve invested a lot in analyzing the factors that contribute to popular games,” he says. “What makes you want to go back there again and again?”
With what he learned, the team aimed to create a game that was difficult enough that most players would fail on the first or even second attempt, but come away thinking they could do better.
They also enhanced the hunting feature with a terrific third-person shooter challenge and brought a historical world to life along the trail.
The Oregon Trail sold over 65 million copies over its decades of existence, and at one point accounted for a third of MECC’s annual revenue. Even today, he lives in T-shirts and Internet memes with “You died of dysentery” and other nostalgic references. You can always find newer versions, not to mention the classic version of the online game.
Bouchard says that educational games, at their best, install “little coat hooks in your mind that you can hang ideas on later.” And the popularity of The Oregon Trail taught a generation about American geography, not to mention how dangerous frontier life is.
Bouchard produced other games for the MECC, including Number Munchers (a Pac-Man-like math game). But none of them have surpassed The Oregon Trail in popularity. Later, Bouchard designed web applications for companies like FedEx and Morgan Stanley before retiring from software.
These days, Bouchard is still finding ways to educate the public about the world around us.
His new book, The Stickler’s Guide to Science in the Age of Misinformation, is the most recent effort. In it, Bouchard returns to his roots as a science student to explore the public’s subtle misperceptions of scientific topics – such as the idea that there is no gravity in space or that humans only have five senses – and delves into the real science behind them.