Travel Oregon, the face of the Oregon Tourism Commision, has released a licensed tribute to the original Oregon Trail video game. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has released licenses to a variety of groups for the development of games-based learning involving the hardships of travel during the 19th century, but this is the first time a state-owned and operated travel agency has used the iconic video game series for its multi-billion dollar industry. Replacing the oxen with a station wagon doesn’t mean the trip is a cakewalk, despite the updated time period. The dangers of drinking too much kombucha are ever-present, and if you run out of gas on the road, you’ll never get to see Willamette Valley unless you’re particularly good at being a hitchhiking ghost.
The Oregon Trail game series is one of the most popular of all time, selling 65 million copies despite it largely disappearing from the games market in the 90’s. There have been remakes and reboots, of course, but nothing has recaptured the original nostalgia nearly every American child experienced while growing up in the 80’s and 90’s. According to the Atlantic, in 2006, 45% of parents with young children knew of Oregon Trail, despite the game’s heyday having passed a decade ago. Oregon Trail is simply one of those phenomenons that bound an entire generation together, even the ones who might have limited access to computers.
It’s no wonder a travel agency would want to try to attach their reputation to something from nearly all of our childhoods. Millenials and Gen Xers immediately recognize any still frame from Oregon Trail, and capturing the fond sensation is why Ready Player One is being made into a movie by Steven Spielberg: nostalgia. Travel Oregon has the same visuals, menus, and gameplay mechanics as the Apple II version of the Oregon Trail we all know, capturing its purest essence in a simple browser-based flash game. In fact, much of it seems simply replace the original text and images with little to no upgrade in the graphics at all.
For years, Travel Oregon (the organization, not the game) has attempted to capitalize on the beauty of the 7 regions the state has, all of them vitally different from the other. But the deserts, mountains, beaches, and even rainforest were merely photos; photos do not capture the attention of a generation who knows just how easily they are doctored to look better than they might actually be. Travel Oregon is a different tactic brought up in the tourism commission’s new plan for 2017-2018: “how can you understand the grandeur of the Oregon coast if you’re not digging your toes into the sand?”
While Travel Oregon is obviously not capable of giving you that exact sensation, it does a better job of getting across to us the scope, fun, and quirkiness involved in traveling to Mt. Hood’s timber-line. While playing it, you can hunt (but make sure to buy a hunting license or you’ll be fined), build snowmen, and buy gas station sushi. You can choose to travel to the high desert or go down south to fish for steelhead among the rapids. There are quirky moments that distinctly remind you of how strange Oregon (and by extension, Portland) can be, like choosing the class, stats, and backstory for your freshly built snowman, or dueling a ghost to the… undeath?
It’s possible that Travel Oregon, despite being an advertising plan for an 11.3 billion dollar tourism industry, is one of the closest interpretations of that old classroom time killer since the 80’s. Other agencies have tried similar plans involving the moving tides of popular culture (like Syria using the Game of Thrones theme to attract Americans) but not many attempts to capture that age-old nostalgia while also memorializing a significant part of their history. After all, December marks the 175th anniversary of the actual Oregon Trail that brought settlers through the Cascades and into Willamette Valley. Maybe in your own journey in Travel Oregon, you’ll make it here. It’s easier without the problem of dysentery, but like me, you might have a hard time avoiding the allure tempting gas station sushi.