When it was first launched in 1971 as a computer game, “The Oregon Trail” told the story of white settlers traveling across the American West in 1848 and let players assume the roles of wagon leaders whose mission was to keep people and cattle alive while facing starvation and other threats. A revamped version of the popular video game created by Gameloft features a less Eurocentric and more nuanced representation of the history of white settlement on these lands.
The new version of this iconic game, which is now available on Apple Arcade, begins with a message from developers that recognizes the failure of the earlier versions of “The Oregon Trail” to portray the Native American presence, point of view, and cultures respectfully and accurately.
Their message reads: “For Indigenous Peoples, westward expansion was not an adventure but an invasion.”
To guide the developers through the process of designing fully playable Native American characters, Gameloft hired three Native American historians to refine characters’ appearance, speech, and roles. They were essential for pointing out blind spots in the developers’ historical knowledge and rectified aspects of the game design that perpetuated limiting and outdated stereotypes.
Margaret Huettl, a historian at the University of Nebraska tells Smithsonian Magazine that “initially, all of the Native people [in the revamped game] had braids… and I think we suggested, maybe they don’t all have to have braids.”
Other revisions were made with the help of the historians, like the removal of stereotypical flute and drum music, and the use of bows and arrows which would have been replaced by rifles based on the time period in which the game is set.
The historically inaccurate older versions of this game were often incorporated into history lessons in American schools from the 1970s to the 1990s, informing students’ concepts of their identities in the world. Jazz Halfmoon, a now 38-year-old Indigenous woman, remembers playing “The Oregon Trail” at her school on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. She says, “I remember being like, ‘Oh, like the Indians killed off somebody in your wagon train’…and then being like, ‘Oh, we’re Indians, you know.”
Instead, the new version allows for dialogue about what truly happened on the real Oregon Trail. The United States government encouraged white settlement in Oregon through the passing of the Oregon Donation Land Act, which offered 320-acre parcels to migrants without permission from the 60-plus tribes that were already living on the land.
Settlers essentially stole 2.8 million acres over a five-year time period, killing hundreds of Native American people in the process.
“The Oregon Trail” isn’t the first that strives to accurately represent the Native American experience of westward expansion. It joins the 2019 game “When Rivers Were Trails,” which features the stories of a displaced Anishinaabeg person in the 1890s.