Since I spent my childhood in communist China, I never played Oregon Trail. (What is this capitalistic land grab?) But whenever people wear those “You Have Died of Dysentery” t-shirts, I pretend to go along and joke about the game. I obviously can’t tell them that nearly 30 million people within my parents’ generation, including many agricultural pioneers, died of starvation due to the disastrous Great Leap Forward. Oregeon Trail is for sissies, I thought.
Back in November, when I was bedridden by a bout of bronchitis and acute pneumonia (maybe not as bad as dysentery), I decided to download the iPhone version of Oregon Trail because misery loves virtual company. As I was playing the advanced level, I realized how bleak the game is. My party of five each dropped off like flies, from illness, from bone fractures, from eagle attacks, from starvation. Lightning struck my wagon in the worst moments as if an unjust divinity were randomly assigning blessings and curses. Creation, with its violent rivers, raging bears and absurd weather, was created by an evil demiurge.
Dysentery version 2.0
“Man, this game is like Blood Meridian for kids,” I thought to myself. “It’s a wonder that the characters in the game don’t turn into cannibals.”
If Cormac McCarthy played Oregon Trail
The retro version of Oregon Trail, now available on the Internet, is even worse. The deers were extremely non-cooperative when it came to hunting time. The road had a lot more fatal obstacles. On my first try, I spent “two months” trying to trade my food for a spare wagon wheel. After that experience, I was convinced that the nature of man is innately selfish.
Parents have been been complaining about how Grand Theft Auto and Manhunt have corrupted their innocent children. Oregon Trail is the granddaddy of them all. After all, Oregon Trail is straight-up realism, with everything blown up to a matter of life and death. The world is not rosy, rather, it’s full of blood, greed and fatal germs.
Is it good to expose seven-year-olds to these facts of life?
When I was seven, my class went on a field trip to see an exhibit about the Nanking Massacre. I saw photographs of men being disemboweled, children beheaded and fetuses riped out of their mother’s wombs. I learned what rape meant before I learned where babies came from. Was I better off for it? Let’s just say I burst out crying when I visited the D.C. Holocaust Museum ten years later.
Compared with those two episodes, Oregon Trail is a much kinder introduction to history.