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The Oregon Trail, GBL, and 7 suggestions to integrate gaming in the classroom

I had a flashback moment a few days ago as I was reading Lance Mosier’s sweet blog post You Died Of Dysentery! Resources on The Oregon Trail.

First year of teaching. Derby Middle School. Five sections of US history. One section of reading. Thirty plus kids per section. Kansas August with no air conditioning. I was absolutely clueless. And excited about the possibilities.

Desperate to figure out how to fill the time while also hoping to find some sort of instructional focus, I ran across a simple turn by turn game called Archaeology.

We played it on an Apple IIE desktop, with groups of four students taking turns to “dig up” artifacts that eventually revealed the remains of a 18th century New England farmhouse.  The game ran on a 5 1/4 floppy disc that I protected with my life because we couldn’t find a way to create a usable backup. My goal was that kids would begin to see that we learn about the past by finding evidence, analyzing the evidence, and by asking questions. I wanted to create little history detectives.

And it worked.

Kids were engaged. Conversation was happening. Stuff was being learned. Of course, I didn’t know why. I just knew something good was taking place. It wasn’t till much later that I started connecting brain research to what happened back at Derby.

The concept and theory of Game Based Learning was years away but the success of Archaeology convinced me that using games as part of my instruction was a good thing. And that I needed to find more things like it to use with my kids.

Along came the original Oregon Trail game.


An actual game that was “educational” and historical. Hmmm . . . sort of. The amount of factual, authentic content was fairly limited. And there wasn’t a ton of supplementary materials that came with the game. So we improvised.

I had students keep journals of their trip – logging the decisions they made and the results of those decisions. Students created maps of their trip and viewed suggested routes from the 1850s. We read actual trail journals and compared those accounts to those of the students. Together with the ELA teacher, we had students write fictional narratives of life on the trail and in Oregon. I made copies of the Jackdaw source set on the Oregon Trail and had students make sense of primary documents. I assigned different groups to start as different occupations and had them discuss differences in how economic and social classes impact outcomes.

All stuff that I’m sure other teachers were doing with the game.

But the cool thing? Kids were engaged and learning. Today I can think back and describe what happened as a result of playing Archeology and Oregon Trail:

  • increased literacy skills
  • improved problem solving skills
  • simulated authentic situations
  • encouraged collaboration
  • engaged students in content
  • led to sophisticated research

The world is a different place than it was back at Derby Middle School and its cutting edge Apple IIe desktops with their five and a quarter floppy drives. But the idea of using games and Game Based Learning is always a good idea.

So a few things to remember when planning for GBL in your class:

You don’t have to be a gamer to use GBL
Don’t feel that you have to know everything about the game or how to beat all the levels. Your kids will figure it out. Let them be in charge.

Carcassonne board game

Don’t ignore the board games
I did this. I got so focused on video and digital games that I forgot about the power of gaming in all of its forms. New versions of “Euro” type games can be incredibly engaging and useful learning tools.

It doesn’t have to be expensive
Get on the Twitters and ask video game companies to donate copies of their games. It’s good PR for them, especially if you’re posting images of the game being used along with positive reviews and hashtags.

Have students use the Google tools to make their own game
We’ve all heard about Choose Your Own Adventure activities either the wildly popular books from the 80s or using Google Forms with logic branching or Google Slides with hyperlinks among slides. They’re fun and engaging for students, but there’s one problem with them. They are passive experiences. All students do are point and click. We need students to be problem solvers, with concrete reasons that explain their choices. Learn how to make your own here, here, and here. Have students go through your Adventure – then have students create their own.

Use screen capture tools to help assess learning
Have kids take screenshots during game play and copy them into a Google Doc. Like the Oregon Trail journals my kids did back in the day, this allows students to document their learning during the learning. Kids can discuss important concepts in the game, game characters, or connect game levels to actual historical events. Kids can also use the browser extension Screencastify to capture actual game play while narrating the action. These videos can be combined using a web based tool like Adobe Spark Video to share their thinking. (Spark Video also comes in an iOS version.)

Some of the best games force students to make interesting choices
Called Serious Games and Games for Change, these sims encourage thinking that leads to deeper and meaningful understandings connect with contemporary issues. Find more here and here.

Use social media to learn more
Even if you’re not using Twitter, you can still follow the game related hashtags: #games4ed and #gbl.

Read some stuff to learn more
Gaming the Past
Play Like a Pirate
Explore Like a Pirate
The Game Believes in You: How Digital Play Can Make Our Kids Smarter
Gamify Your Classroom
Using Simulation Games in the History Classroom

Have fun!

And if you’re jonesing for a little Oregon Trail, you can still play it online. And Lance found an awesome fake movie trailer based on the game. Funny on so many levels.

Thanks, Lance, for the trip down memory lane.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Glenn is a curriculum and tech integration specialist, speaker, and blogger with a passion for technology and social studies. He delivers engaging professional learning across the country with a focus on consulting, presentations, and keynotes. Find out more about Glenn and how you might learn together by going to his Speaking and Consulting page.


4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Joyce Ostertag #

    There is a good series of streaming interactive programs called Mission US from PBS Learning Media. My 4th and 5th grade students have enjoyed them but as you so correctly point out, it is important to use different strategies to maximize thoughtful engagement of the content.
    P.S. Have added that Oregon Trail video to my YouTube playlist, LOL!

    August 31, 2017
    • glennw #


      I love how the Mission US sims can help build empathy and content knowledge. Their teacher guides are essential for using them in powerful ways. Thanks for sharing!


      September 5, 2017

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