Remaking Oregon Trail Video Game With An Eye Toward More Accurate Native American Depictions

May 11, 2021

Jazz Halfmoon remembers playing the educational video game Oregon Trail as a reward for doing well in her Oregon grade school class.

“It was on a super old computer,” she says. “The green screen was like the only color.”

She says it was really exciting, and the kids would often clamor and fight over who could play the game on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation in northeastern Oregon. 

“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,’” Halfmoon says.

Halfmoon, who is 38, and a generation of kids like her grew up playing it. They remember the game mostly for the moment — wait for it — their party died of dysentery. 

Now, a new spin on the wagon train game focuses on more accurately representing Native Americans.

The company Gameloft tackled the redesign of Oregon Trail for Apple Arcade just in time for the increase in worldwide play because of the pandemic. Its target audience: the now-40-year-olds and their kids. And more Native American players. 

Gameloft Brisbane creative director Jarrad Trudgen had to root out historical inaccuracies and cliches about Native American culture.

Updated graphics on the new Oregon Trail game represent Native Americans more accurately in their dress and style.
Credit Courtesy of Gameloft

“Well, as a white, middle class Australian, I don’t think I can really speak to that,” he says, about getting everything right for indigenous peoples in the new game. “I’d like help with that. And I’d like to talk to some Native Americans, and some Native American history professors.”

So he brought in three indigenous historians. They listened to early test music for the game and said, back off the drums and flutes. And don’t use broken, stilted English. Trudgen got it.

“It’s like a trope to make Native American people seem primitive somehow,” Trudgen says. “When actually there were a lot of bilingual or polylingual Native Americans at that time.”

Margaret Huettl is an assistant professor of history and ethnic studies at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She says she's glad the new Oregon Trail game developers listened to her and other scholars in making a more accurate depiction of Native Americans for gamers.
Credit Courtesy of Margaret Huettl

The team of historians came up with more appropriate names for game characters and advocated for new roles for Native Americans, not just as guides or trappers. 

University of Nebraska historian Margaret Huettl has Lac Courte Oreilles tribal ancestors. She researched old photos and drawings for accurate depictions of different tribes’ clothing and style.

“Initially, all of the Native people (in the revamped game) had braids,” Huettl says. “And I think we suggested, maybe they don’t all have to have braids.”

One major teaching moment for Trudgen was about bows and arrows. He definitely wanted them. 

“There are a lot of popular games out there, Tomb Raider and Last of Us, and like these big games where bows and arrows are sick,” Trudgen says. 

But historian Huettl explained if you were a Native American trapper at the time of the Oregon Trail, you were more likely to have a rifle, so bows and arrows are an outdated stereotype.

“That wasn’t our intention at all, obviously,” Trudgen says. “We were just coming to it sort of as a naive ‘bow and arrows are cool’ angle.” 

David Lewis teaches anthropology and ethnic studies at Oregon State University. He’s a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, the territory where many Oregon Trail settlers ended up. 

David Lewis teaches anthropology and ethinc studies at Oregon State University. He says the Oregon Trail wasn't a great story for the tribes and bands of tribes across the West.
Credit Courtesy of David Lewis

“(Tribes) were excited initially for all the new products: the guns, the metals and fabrics and things like that,” Lewis says. 

But, he says, the real Oregon Trail wasn’t a positive story for Native Americans. The settlers kept coming, and the government forced tribes into bad deals, like treaties that gave away their best land and forced their people onto reservations where many died.  

“That settlement of Oregon then, was initially just a theft of land,” he says.  “ … by and large, the experience of Native people was one of continual loss for the first 70 or 80 years.”

Indigenous people didn’t become U.S. citizens until 1924. Lewis says they had no rights until then. 

It’s hard to encapsulate this complicated, tough history into a video game. But historian Huettl says the designers were serious about getting it right. The prairies she knows well are beautiful in the game. 

“(And) there’s no bow and arrow,” Huettl says. “That’s not in the game. They listened to what we were saying.”

The flutes are mostly gone, too. But they did leave one old moment in the new version: Players can still die of dysentery. 

Depictions of Native culture, dress and interactions with settlers are more accurate in the new Oregon Trail game. But one thing remains from the previous version: dying of dysentery.
Credit Courtesy of Gameloft