Computer-game lovers who were fourth-, fifth- or sixth-graders between 1985 and 2000 probably are familiar with Philip Bouchard’s work — they just don’t know it.
The Cobb County native was chief designer of “The Oregon Trail,” a classic Apple II computer game released in 1985 and played by an entire generation of kids in schools and homes across North America. Bouchard, who left Cobb County for a while but moved back to Kennesaw in April 2020, worked for MECC in Minnesota when he led a team in creating the groundbreaking computer game that was educational as well as entertaining.
What inspired you to create the game?
We created the “classic” Apple II version of “The Oregon Trail” during a 10-month period from October 1984 through July 1985. However, versions of the game date back to 1971, and it was those earlier versions that provided the inspiration for our doing a much bigger and richer version. The earliest versions were entirely in text and played on a teletype machine connected to a mainframe computer. In 1980, MECC released the first Apple II version, which barely was changed from the earliest versions and was still presented almost entirely as text. The version we created in 1984-85 was reimagined completely and rebuilt from scratch. Nearly all of the features that people associate with the classic versions were invented during these 10 months. We had two reasons for creating this reimagined version. The 1980 Apple II version was sadly outdated, both in terms of technology and gameplay, so it was high time to replace it with something more modern and elaborate. And MECC wanted to create a version that could be sold to the home market, which required it to be much more modern and elaborate.
What did you think about the game’s success?
It was indeed a big success in both the home and school markets. I had thought our new design had a very good chance of being successful, so I expected it to do fairly well. However, the degree of success was greater than I had anticipated. Furthermore, I assumed after a few years of success, people would gradually forget about it, so my biggest surprise is people still talk about it and share memes about it 37 years later.
How revolutionary was the game for this time period?
“The Oregon Trail” straddled the line between educational software and entertainment. Some people called it “edutainment.” The original mainframe version from 1971 certainly was groundbreaking for its time, and our 1985 Apple II version continued to break new ground. The market for edutainment software still was young and primarily was dominated by “drill-and-practice” games, which require players to perform arithmetic operations or flashcard drills. Our product was quite different because it was a historical simulation game, built on top of a complex set of mathematical models. In the edutainment space, there really wasn’t anything else like it.
What happened to the game’s popularity after 2000?
The version I designed appeared on just two platforms — the Apple II in 1985 and a DOS (IBM) edition in 1990. Eventually, that version became too outdated, just as the earlier versions had. Computers became more powerful, with higher resolution, more memory, faster processors and more colors. In the early 1990s, it became common to include a CD-ROM drive on PCs and Macs. This started the multimedia PC revolution, which allowed games to include embedded video and music. Therefore, in 1995, MECC released “The Oregon Trail II,” a redesigned version intended to make use of these capabilities. As the old Apple II and DOS computers were retired, people switched to the newer versions of the game, which also proved to be extremely popular.
How did creating this game shape your career?
In graduate school in the late 1970s, I had specialized in creating educational computer simulations. I joined MECC in 1981 with the intention of continuing to do so, but until “The Oregon Trail,” I never had the chance. The game’s success certainly helped my career, as I continued to work in educational software until 1998. But in 1999, I changed directions and devoted the remainder of my career to creating internet applications for various companies.