Carl Creators of Oregon Trail Celebrate 50th Anniversary

Don Rawitsch ’72, Bill Heinemann ’72 and Paul Dillenberger ’72 debuted the popular education game in classrooms on Dec. 3, 1971.

2 December 2021 Posted In:
Oregon Trail creators with the original code.
The Carleton creators, in 1995, holding the original code.Photo:

It was 1971, bell bottoms were in, Three Dog Night was on the radio, and Intel had just put out its first microprocessor. Enter three Carls onto the scene: Don Rawitsch ’72, Bill Heinemann ’72 and Paul Dillenberger ’72 were busy finishing their finals project — what would become an internationally known educational game — The Oregon Trail. 

Dec. 3, 2021, marks the 50th anniversary of the very first use of The Oregon Trail educational game in a junior high classroom in the Minneapolis school district. 

“All three of us were living together in an apartment in Crystal, Minnesota, during our student teacher days,” Heinemann said. “One night, Don put down a map of the Oregon Trail on the floor. He had created a game, but I instantly saw something that would be great for the computer. So, we put it on the computer and the rest is history, literally.”

“For the three of us Carleton students who invented the game,” Rawitsch said, “it turned out to be very unexpected and such an incredible experience that it became as well-known as it did.”

Dear diary

For a long time, very few people knew who had invented the Oregon Trail game, much less what day it was first used. The trio was officially recognized as the creators just 10 years ago and Rawitsch only recently found an old diary giving them the exact date they finished the work — which took only 10 days from start to finish — during finals of their senior year.  

“My professor at the time made us keep a diary of our experiences throughout the class,” Rawitsch said. “About five years ago, around the 45-year mark, I found my diary and was flipping through the pages and that’s how we found out Dec. 3 was the first time the program was used in a classroom setting.”

“It was a big deal for Don that day because he was trying it out in his classroom,” Heinemann said. “We only had 10 days to get this done before that Friday, so for Paul and me, that day was a relief for us more than anything.”

“I figured there would be a bunch of pages about the Oregon Trail in the diary,” Rawitsch said. “There was only one. And on the last page I was reflecting on my time and became very philosophical saying, ‘I know one thing for sure is that I want to be a teacher.’ Of course, I didn’t end up being one, but I worked for places that let me teach teachers about using technology effectively with kids.” 

Rawitsch went on to work for Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium after college bringing the beginning code to their developers. From there, the game took on a new, interactive life and was sent out to schools across the state. 

“When we first created it, I thought it was going to be popular for a little while — like a few months,” Heinemann said. “Then things would come along that would surpass what we created. But when Don took it to MECC and they created the full video and audio, that really helped.”

The Carleton connection

Now, after 50 years and countless interviews, the Carls look back on the generational game they created in that small Minnesota apartment and how Carleton shaped their experience. 

“You know, I’ve thought about whether the invention of the Oregon Trail is Carleton-specific or if this could’ve happened at any liberal arts college,” Rawitsch said. “I think it’s a tribute to the college that students were allowed to be thinkers. Those of us who got to start our career when we were in college — that just accelerated the need and the interest in doing things differently and in innovation. The college really established that environment.”

“When you have students of different fields of study working on a project, it opens up the possibilities of what you can create when you combine them,” Heinemann said. “Now, if we would’ve only had a business major. My son went on to be a business major and always said, ‘Dad, if I was around then, you would be a millionaire.’”

The three of them didn’t make a dime for the original code of the game. 

“At the time there were no software companies and MECC was a non-profit state-funded organization; so there was no money to make,” Paul Dillenberger said. “Our goals were to be the best teachers we could be and to make learning interesting and fun.”

“If you put 10 math teachers in a room, they wouldn’t have come up with the Oregon Trail,” Rawitsch said. “Same with 10 history teachers. But the fact that the liberal arts model was working — we put the two disciplines together, and what came out was a technical simulation that helped kids better understand history.”

“Professor Jorgensen, our math methods teacher, instilled in me that kids learn better when they discover or experience the concept,” Dillenberger said. “They are more likely to remember and use their learned knowledge. In the Oregon Trail program, students travel the trail and learn from their mistakes in a safe way. They experience what life was like back then and become problem solvers at the same time.

“I always thought school should be fun, because I learned most of what I learned outside of school,” Heinemann said. “When you do things that are fun, learning is painless. The happiest comments I’ve gotten are when people tell me they played the game through junior high and that they wouldn’t have gotten through school if it weren’t for that bright spot in the day when they got to play Oregon Trail.”

The next 50 

The Carls have made presentations, led discussions and given speeches all over the country — on NPR, at MIT and for the local news — and have been recognized nationally and internationally. The game was inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame in Rochester, New York, in 2016. 

“I’ve collected newspaper clippings and magazine articles about people playing Oregon Trail over the years,” Heinemann said. “It has spread all over the country and beyond.”

“A number of people have said to me, ‘Thank you for making the Oregon Trail, because it was where I learned something,’” Rawitsch said. “Others have told me they became computer game designers because they started on the Oregon Trail.”

“It’s one of the things the three of us take pride in,” Rawitsch continued. “We didn’t just settle for what the norm was. We tried and came up with a different way to get the content across.”

For more on the creators of the Oregon Trail game, watch the FOX9 story and PBS documentary, listen to Don on NPR or read the Voice article.