Twist on classic video game gives Native Americans better representation: NPR

An update to the classic 80s video game Oregon Trail puts more emphasis on the life of the Native Americans you meet on the trail to the west. (This story originally aired on ATC on May 12, 2021.)


A generation of children grew up playing an early educational video game called The Oregon Trail. These are pioneers on the western trail. They especially remember it for when their party died of dysentery. Well, now there’s a different twist on the wagon tracker that focuses on a more accurate depiction of the Native Americans they encounter along the way, and it includes playable native characters. Anna King of the Northwest News Network has more.

ANNA KING, BYLINE: Jazz Halfmoon, now 38, remembers playing Oregon Trail as a reward for doing well in class.

JAZZ HALFMOON: And that was on the old – great old computer. The green screen was, like, the only color.

KING: Halfmoon grew up in the Confederate Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation in northeastern Oregon.

HALF-MOON: I remember being like, oh, like, the Indians killed, you know, somebody in your wagon, you know? And it’s like, well, we’re Indians, you know, like…

KING: The Gameloft company tackled the redesign of the Oregon Trail. Its target audience – the now 40-somethings and their kids and more Native American gamers. Lead designer Jarrad Trudgen had to weed out historical inaccuracies and clichés about Native American culture.

JARRAD TRUDGEN: Well, as a middle-class white Australian, I don’t think I can really talk about that.

KING: So he brought in native historians. They listened to the first test music for the game and said, stop the drums and flutes and don’t use broken, stuffy English. Trudgen got it.

TRUDGEN: It’s like a trope of trying to make Native Americans look primitive when in fact there were a lot of bilingual or polylingual Native Americans at that time.

KING: The team of historians came up with more appropriate character names and argued for new roles for Native Americans, not just guides or trappers. University of Nebraska historian Margaret Huettl has tribal ancestry from Lake Courte Oreilles. She researched old photos and drawings for accurate depictions of the clothing and style of different tribes.

MARGARET HUETTL: Initially, all Aboriginal people had braids, and I think we suggested that maybe they didn’t all have to have braids.

KING: A major teaching moment for Trudgen: bows and arrows. He definitely wanted them. Huettl explained that if you were a Native American trapper at the time, you were more likely to have a rifle. Bows and arrows are therefore an outdated stereotype.

David Lewis teaches anthropology and ethnic studies at Oregon State University, and he is a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, territories where many settlers found themselves.

DAVID LEWIS: They were initially excited about all the new products, guns and metals and fabrics and things like that.

KING: But the real Oregon Trail was not a positive story for Native Americans. The settlers continued to arrive.

LEWIS: Overall, the Aboriginal experience was a continual loss for the first 70 or 80 years.

KING: It’s hard to put all of that into a video game, but historian Margaret Huettl says the designers were serious about getting it right.

HUETTL: It was clear that they were listening to us and taking what we had to say seriously.

KING: Yeah, the flutes are almost gone too, but they left an old moment in the new version. You can still die of dysentery.

For NPR News, I’m Anna King.


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Nohemi M. Moore