Memory  /  First Person

On Nostalgia and Colonialism on the New Oregon Trail

What does it mean to reform a game based on a violent history of land theft and appropriation?

What does it mean to reform a game based on a violent history of land theft and appropriation? Including diverse perspectives and reframing the narrative away from plucky explorers and instead highlighting the peoples who were already there is a worthy and important goal. But at the same time, what does it mean to rehabilitate a game that nostalgically allowed people to play colonizing settlers in a country still too far from grappling with its violent, colonial history (and its present)? As Jezz Halfmoon poignantly observed as an Indigenous player of the original game, “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.'”

As I continued to play the game, I thought further about the deep, historic anti-blackness and anti-indigeneity of the historic Oregon Territory our digital settlers were trying to reach. As I’ve written about previously, Oregon Territory not only explicitly banned Black settlement in the territory by referendum in 1858 (which was not overturned until 1927), interracial marriage was also outlawed (until 1951) explicitly in response to fears of Black and Native American corruption of the society these settlers hoped to build. What did it mean for Black children like me or Indigenous children like Halfmoon to play this game two decades ago? What does it mean to do it now?

For those who say that these reflections are a tall order for a simple video game to address, I can somewhat concede that it’s asking a lot. But for a game that was touted as an educational cornerstone for many of us, it fundamentally shaped how multiple generations first viewed not only Indigenous peoples, but the actions of settlement in the United States. It absolutely erases the violence that structured nearly every aspect of the Oregon Trail itself and the occupation of lands in the Pacific Northwest by settlers.

I am not saying that people playing the game are responsible for genocidal, settler violence, but as children we were somewhat unwittingly invited into the gamification of colonialism. As those Conestoga wagons rolled westward, our bankers flirting with dysentery and grueling paces, we placed ourselves in pixelated portraits of pioneers on flickering screens. We are nostalgic for those early computer memories, for the feelings of amusement and safety they elicited in us. But these games were also cosplaying conquest, rendering irreparable destruction as a pleasing form of play.

If, as the late anthropologist Patrick Wolfe claimed, “Settler colonialism destroys to replace,” then the Oregon Trail — both the historic process and the successful game series — are acts of writing colonial stories atop already existing peoples. What does it mean to reckon with this history? Can this legacy ever be reformed? These are questions I continue to ask myself as I think through what it means to head west on the Trail on my computer today.