Though it’s the reason he was hired as a video producer at Game Informer, Ben Hanson back-burnered his documentary, Trailheads: The Oregon Trail’s Origins Documentary, for 11 years on a game that took 5 days to create (don’t we all have some project like that?). And yet, the wait has been worth it: You’re gonna party like it’s 1999 when you find out what role the late Prince may have played in The Oregon Trail!
See more from Ben Hanson:
Podcast: The MinnMax Show
Kelsey Lewin 00:01
Welcome to episode number five of the Video Game History Hour presented by the Video Game History Foundation. Every episode, we’ll be bringing in an expert guest: someone who’s done their research and has an interesting story from video game history to tell. My name is Kelsey Lewin, I’m the co-director of the Video Game History Foundation. And actually, it’s just me hosting this week. Frank is at the dentist or he made that up to get out of learning about something today. But it doesn’t matter because I’m here today with an absolute professional: the founder of MinnMaxShow, a show about games, friends, and getting better, and all-around cool guy, Ben Hansen! Welcome to the show, Ben.
Ben Hansen 00:35
Thank you so much for having me, Kelsey! It’s an honor to be here!
Kelsey Lewin 00:38
So today we’re talking about a brand new documentary called Trailheads, covering the origin of the game Oregon Trail. And you said you’ve been working on this a pretty long time, right?
Ben Hansen 00:48
Oh, my gosh, yeah… Way too long! It’s really an embarrassing story. [laughter] So I started this documentary about the Oregon Trail back when I worked at a community TV station in Roseville, Minnesota back in 2009, is when I started working on this thing. And then when there was a job opening at Game Informer as a video producer (their first video producer back in 2010), I quickly cobbled together a trailer of this documentary I was working on and showed it to them. And they’re like, “Wow, Oregon Trail! Look at this! This looks like a real documentary!” And so it’s the reason I got hired on at Game Informer, which I was then there for nine years. So it’s really important to me, and it’s been sitting on kind of the back burner for a while because… When I was at Game Informer I was like, “Well, I could finish the documentary and release it on Game Informer’s YouTube channel, but then I wouldn’t own it and it would kind of be handing it over to GameStop?” Not that the ownership of a documentary is the most important thing in the world. But it just struck me as so strange when a core theme of the documentary itself is the idea of handing a passion project over to a larger corporation, so I was like, “I think I’ll just hang on to this.”
Kelsey Lewin 01:16
Ben Hansen 01:19
So you were done with all of the footage by the time you got hired at Game Informer? You just kind of hadn’t edited it yet? Yeah, that was exactly it. Yeah. So I had filmed the three interviews. Actually, there were four, but I didn’t use the fourth. But yeah, so I had filmed all that stuff in 2010. And luckily, you know, for whatever reason, I shot it back then at 60 frames a second so it hasn’t aged too poorly. And even though I was still a little bit of a rookie video producer, like, the lighting isn’t embarrassingly bad or anything.
Kelsey Lewin 02:25
Ben Hansen 02:25
So yeah, it was kind of stuck in this rough kind of SELEX-era for many years. And always, in my mind, I was thinking like, “Well, I’ve got to really scramble and get a bunch of people from MECC to tell that part of the story.” But then, as time went on, I realized, “You know what? The story is just about the three original creators and it’s fine to limit the scope and focus this documentary down.” Because if it was telling the full story of the Oregon Trail, there are a million versions to go through and it can really spiral out of control.
Kelsey Lewin 02:55
Oh my god, I completely empathize with that every time you feel like you’re done with a project, you’re like, Well, you know, I haven’t asked like the marketing team and
Ben Hansen 03:05
Right and then you’re left with –
Kelsey Lewin 03:06
– We haven’t gotten everyone’s perspective yet!
Ben Hansen 03:08
Right! Then you have hundreds of hours of footage and then you’re just beating your head against the desk. Like what is this story? What have I done?
Kelsey Lewin 03:15
Did anyone A Game Informer ever ask you about this? Like, “Hey, what happened to that thing that got you hired here?”
Ben Hansen 03:21
Yeah, exactly. You’d think my boss would have brought it up like, “We hired you because of that doc…” No, it came up a couple times. I think at a certain point, Joe Juba at Game Informer had a story about MECC in the magazine, in Game Informer magazine. So that was really a weird spot for me where I was like, “God, did you release it to like, synchronize with that? It’s kind of a different story…. Or…” I remember… Oh, this is, this is bad and embarrassing, but that’s what this podcast is about, right? Just telling emberrasing old stories?
Kelsey Lewin 03:50
Oh, absolutely, yeah!
Ben Hansen 03:51
Okay, great. I remember, early on when I started, it was probably late 2010, early 2011. Somebody wrote an article about the origins of the Oregon Trail, it was City Pages here in Minneapolis. And so they were gonna write a new story and given farmers website about this. And I was such a cocky little turd. I went to Matt Helgeson, who had been a Game Informer since 1999, just a pro in every level. And I was like, “Hey, Matt, I’m making this documentary about the Oregon Trail. And I thought it’d be cool if, you know, the documentary had a bigger splash so the story wasn’t getting around there too much. So could we NOT write up that other story about the Oregon Trail from City Pages?” And he’s like, “Hey, man, what do you want? It’s history, the cat’s out of the bag.” I was like, “Okay! All right, then!” And of course, I can’t believe I even asked him to do that. It’s embarrassing.
Kelsey Lewin 04:40
No, I mean, I get it though! You know, when you spend a lot of time on something and you feel like you’re the guy who uncovered it? It does kind of suck when someone else brings out, you’re like, “Damn, I spent so much time on that! Like I was…”
Ben Hansen 04:53
Yeah, have other people… has that happened to you? Is there another WonderSwan expert out there or something?
Kelsey Lewin 04:59
Well it’s happened to me with something. I mean, like, I did a an Animal Crossing video on my now-defunct YouTube channel that was really in response to somebody doing a history of Animal Crossing video where it was like, “I have all of this stuff that’s sitting here that I’ve discovered and if I don’t, like, get some of it out I’m gonna be really mad when someone else does.” Right. And you know, not actually mad. But it’s one of those things where if you spend a really long amount of time working on something, it does kind of sting a little bit when someone else gets the accolades for it. So I get it. I don’t think that’s… I think it’s good to call that embarrassing, but I don’t think it’s actually embarrassing.
Ben Hansen 05:46
Kelsey Lewin 05:46
I think we should all be trying to just have as much history out there as possible. But I think it’s very human for that to sting a little bit, you know. To want credit for your work.
Ben Hansen 05:57
Yeah. And there’s smaller examples of that. Like, DidYouKnowGaming?, which I think is a lot of fun stuff on YouTube, there. But I remember it would drive me nuts when they would have, you know, “DidYouKnowGaming about Zelda!” And then in the video, they’d have a bunch of factoids about Zelda that would come from, like, a Game Informer interview filmed, like, years before. And then we’d end up writing that story about the DidYouKnowGaming video on our site, it’s like… “That’s our own material just being lost in the cycle of facts and tidbits from Wikipedia at this point!”
Kelsey Lewin 06:27
Yeah. Well, I mean, that’s another part of it, too. Even if something’s been done before, you can present a fact or a story or history or whatever in, you know, 12 different ways, and it’s going to be new to someone every time.
Ben Hansen 06:40
Kelsey Lewin 06:41
Because I’m sure you’re not the first person who’s talked about Oregon Trail here. But…
Ben Hansen 06:46
No, yeah, I’m sure I’m not. But I think it’s pretty rare to focus on these guys. Like, back in 2010 and 2009 when we were filming these interviews, it was their first time doing a video interview for two of them. They’d done a couple radio interviews here and there. But even now, I don’t know, if they’ve done too many video interviews. I know that Don Rawitsch gave a presentation at GDC in 2017. But outside of that, getting their faces on camera is pretty rare. So, it’s nice to have that slice of history preserved.
Kelsey Lewin 07:03
Wow! This whole story was new to me, so even if someone’s done it, they haven’t done it like you have, so…
Ben Hansen 07:16
Oh, that’s nice.
Kelsey Lewin 07:18
So OK, just to start this off: I was listening to an episode of your show where you put one of your guests on the spot and made him guess the year Oregon Trail was programed.
Ben Hansen 07:35
Kelsey Lewin 07:36
There’s obviously no one here to trick but for everyone listening to this episode, just take a second come up with a year. You know, what year would you imagine that Oregon Trail was programmed? Because I would have never gotten this. Ben, what’s the answer?
Ben Hansen 07:49
Kelsey Lewin 07:51
1971! This predates Pong! This is ancient video game history.
Ben Hansen 07:59
To the point where you can’t even call it “video game.” I guess you’d have call it a computer game because it’s on a teletype so there’s no monitor there yet.
Kelsey Lewin 08:05
That is almost word for word. What I wrote in my notes here.
Ben Hansen 08:08
Kelsey Lewin 08:10
Um, yeah, you really can’t call this thing a video game because it’s… Yeah, it is printing out things that you’re entering in commands and typing in things on a teletype, and then you just get this printout of what’s happening. So there’s, there’s no video involved. It’s a game. It’s not really a video game yet.
Ben Hansen 08:29
And this was the toughest thing, I think, in editing the documentary. When it’s just their story, we don’t have a narrator or anything like that. It’s not me butting in every five minutes. But when they talk about the landscape that they created this game in back in 1971, I’m still struggling to get a grasp of what it was like. Because the way that they frame it, it’s like, “Yeah, all of the games that were on the teletype – if you can call them games – were terrible.” There was Lunar Lander, like a very, very early version of Lunar Lander where you’re like entering, you know, the amount of gas you’re going to have and then it tells you if your rocket crashed. Or, they said, there was a civil war simulation game which was, “How much food do you feed your troops? 1-100.” And then you enter that number and then it simulates a battle and it says, “Uh, turns out the South lost this one.”
Kelsey Lewin 09:17
Ben Hansen 09:17
And that was, like, the level of games back then! And so, you know, I’ve spent so much time thinking about the Oregon Trail in the very start of it, it’s like… It is the start of a lot! Just on a game design level I feel like that game does not get enough credit for how important it is in that landscape back then.
Kelsey Lewin 09:34
Yeah, and I mean, you’re bringing up a really good point with all of these things being simulation games. And that’s really almost all you can do with teletypes because they’re just spitting back, you know, numbers and words and stuff back at you. So I mean, what can you really design around that limitation for? And the answer is pretty much just simulations? And you can’t… like, even the the hunting game In Oregon Trail, the original version, is you’re typing out “bang” as fast as you can. Just typing out the word “bang!”
Ben Hansen 10:07
Right and it could time you based on how quickly you could type it. And so you’d have either a lot of food or a little food based on that. And then if you had a typo in there, it wouldn’t give you any food, apparently.
Kelsey Lewin 10:16
Yeah, it’s weird because we’re almost coming at video game history from two different trajectories. Because 1971, this is the year that, like, Computer Space came out. Again, this predates Pong. So you have screens exist somewhere, but it’s absolutely, I mean, we’re in the earliest, earliest days of screens even existing, even being a possibility. And when they are, of course, for things like computer space and Pong, you’re just talking about little squares, basically. So you can build really, really simple games like Pong around that, an action game, for lack of a better term, a game where the action is happening. Or you have something coming off of a teletype, where you’re just kind of typing words back and forth with a computer and getting this sort of simulation thing. And I mean, these are two completely different tracks. It’s like you couldn’t have that on a screen because there’s no graphics yet, and you couldn’t make a game like Pong with a teletype. Unless you just want to type the word “hit” back and forth with a computer…
Ben Hansen 11:33
It does sound fun, now that you mention it…
Kelsey Lewin 11:36
“Left side.” “Right side.” “Left side.”
Ben Hansen 11:38
Do you have a sense of if there were adventure games back then? Like, had anybody entered an adventure into a computer?
Kelsey Lewin 11:45
Yeah, I think? You know, my dates for this early history stuff is a little shaky. But yeah, I mean, certainly on like these time-share computers at universities and that sort of thing is where the text-based adventure games start starting to be a thing. But again, I mean, just like you’re with the sims coming off of the simulation games coming off of the teletypes. I mean, it’s like, that’s really all you can do is just text-based stuff.
Ben Hansen 12:18
Yeah. So I’m trying to get a sense of what even to call the Oregon Trail. And there’s a part of me that’s like, well, is this the first roguelike ever made, nine years before Rogue came out? Like, what do you call this design that they pioneered here?
Kelsey Lewin 12:32
It almost is a little bit! Yeah, I mean, I can absolutely see that ’cause, you know, you just got to kind of start and get as far as you can, every time, right? Yeah, Oregon Trail is a roguelike. I’ll take it. Or Rogue is an Oregon Trail-like.
Ben Hansen 12:47
Yeah, which I mean that is a whole can of worms, then. I am just craving a new, good version of the Oregon Trail, something with a budget. You know, there’s been a version on the Wii, they had some on the 3DS and DS, but they were pretty bad. But I feel like there’s so much power in that idea even of just making a great modern roguelike version of Oregon Trail. I want somebody to do it, but the license is just confusing now.
Kelsey Lewin 13:14
Yeah, is it? So I know that MECC was bought a couple times, bought and sold a couple times. So who owns it now? Who owns The Oregon Trail?
Ben Hansen 13:24
Technically, now, it is a company called Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which they’ve released a bunch of educational books, that’s kind of their jam. But I eventually traced it back to them and I called up their headquarters because I was debating like, “Oh, we have this little tag at the end of the documentary?” And it was so funny, like, talking to, you know, just the first person I dialed up and it was a assistant or secretary or whatever. And she’s like, “Yeah, I think we own Rhe Oregon Trail… Let me check.” And then forward me along a bunch of different ways, ended up talking to the Vice President of that company. And is interesting, actually, whatever this means. She’s like, “Ah, yeah, we do own it… Um, I, I can’t really talk to you about it, because we’re tied up with another media agreement.” And so…
Kelsey Lewin 14:10
Oh, that just means a game to development or something.
Ben Hansen 14:12
That’s what I’m hoping for. Or, that in my mind, I was like, “Oh my god, is there some documentary about The Oregon Trail on the way because…”
Kelsey Lewin 14:13
“Gotta get this out FAST!”
Ben Hansen 14:18
Yeah, the 50th anniversary is coming up next year. So like, maybe something’s timed with that? I hope they do something cool with it within the next year because right now it’s just kind of a vague memory. They have an official Twitter account for The Oregon Trail that just tweets about, “Yeah, dysentery, wakawaka!” You know, I just want something great to come of this thing again!
Kelsey Lewin 14:41
I did like that you had, one of one of the guys that you interviewed had a shirt that said “you’ve died of dysentery,” and that’s like the thing you see it Hot Topic and Target probably even now. That’s, like, the Oregon Trail joke.
Ben Hansen 14:55
I don’t know if you have this, too. You’re a very smart person, you know everything.
Kelsey Lewin 14:57
[laughter] Well, I don’t know about that…
Ben Hansen 14:58
But I have this weird thing, too, where when I really like something, I’m annoyed when it becomes a meme. And there’s a part of me where it’s like, Oh, I love the Oregon Trail so much. And I’m so embedded in the history of the Oregon Trail. Now, when I started to see the rise of that, you know, “you’ve died of dysentery” stuff, I was like, “Yeah, okay. All right. Everybody Cool” Or like, you know, Jurassic Park is my favorite movie so when just, “Eh! Clever girl, right?” Yeah. Okay. Yeah, Goldblum with the shirt. It’s more than that, though! You know, you just you feel defensive about like, “it’s more than a meme everybody!”
Kelsey Lewin 15:04
Yes! Yeah. Like, you’ve got to experience the whole thing, you don’t just die of dysentery! There’s a whole system, here.
Ben Hansen 15:32
That’s true. In fact, that was not in the original text-based version. That was something that MECC added later, I forget which version exactly.
Kelsey Lewin 15:40
So there was a part in your documentary here where Don was talking about, kind of… Well, I guess we’re jumping ahead a little bit more, but we’ll jump back. But he was talking about once he handed the game over to MECC to go back and make sure everything was actually historically accurate? And I loved what he said he did for the research for this as he just went and got as many Oregon Trail journals as he possibly could, and just started keeping score. He was like, “Okay, how many times did they say it rained? How many times did they say someone broke their arm?” And then made that being a part of the math inside of the game. You know, the probabilities. So I thought that was really interesting. Did he give you a sense of how much was changed from that original version?
Ben Hansen 16:30
Oh, god… That’s a good question. I think it’s a lot of tweaks. Yeah, doing that math with the diaries… I think it was around that era as well, where they’re like, “We should make this a little more politically correct.” Because I believe the original version was, you know, “Indians attack! Over and over and over again!” And then he said, from reading the the diaries that he realized, like, a lot of people are talking about, “Oh, the Native Americans are actually helping us stay on the trail a lot of the time!” And so I believe in that version, they changed “Indians attack” to “riders attack,” which, you know, it’s still like, mid-70s. Like, “All right, pretty progressive, y’all.”
Kelsey Lewin 17:09
The idea of that’s pretty funny, just random riders out in the middle of nowhere.
Ben Hansen 17:14
Right, and even that is tied to, you know, the fun math and random roll of the dice where it’s like, “Okay, you’re more likely to be attacked by random riders at the start of the trail where there’s more people and then we have to kind of taper that off.” And that’s, I mean, the fascinating thing about The Oregon Trail is just how naturally that idea ties into game design. You know, it’s such a bizarre thing. It just… I was thinking a lot about it. There’s something so fun about just zooming in on one aspect of US history here, like, “Okay, The Oregon Trail. People trying to get to the West coast.” And then when you look at it from this context, you start to see all these epiphanies which they had when designing the original version. “Okay, this is a bit of a game. This is a bit of a game, it is kind of like a dice roll, whether or not you’re getting hit with a storm, lose the trail, your son’s going to break their arm.” And it just is beautiful how everything kind of syncs up and creates this fantastic game.
Kelsey Lewin 18:04
Yeah, it really is. And I do think that this hyper zoomed-in thing with The Oregon Trail? I mean, do you think you would have remembered learning about the Oregon Trail at all if it wasn’t for this game?
Ben Hansen 18:16
Kelsey Lewin 18:16
I don’t think anyone would have any sort of latent knowledge of the Oregon Trail without this game.
Ben Hansen 18:23
In fact, I probably should have done this research: I don’t even know if the Oregon Trail was the most important trail! I assume it was?
Kelsey Lewin 18:29
Yeah! I don’t either! [laughter]
Ben Hansen 18:31
I don’t know! It’s that and the Amazon Trail is important, the Yukon Trail, but all because MECC during those indie games!
Kelsey Lewin 18:37
Right! [Laughter] Yeah, I only know of this one is kind of the “the big one,” right? This one was obviously very important to U.S. history, but it really just came out of, because Don was teaching a class about the Oregon Trail and you know, otherwise might have just been a throw-away. Like, you learn about this in middle school for a couple days, and then you never hear about it ever again.
Ben Hansen 19:03
Yeah, it’s like, you know, if he was with his student teaching – they’re all going to Carleton College and then came to the cities to do student teaching – and so if his class was stuck with a biology class or something, “All right, let’s teach you about, you know, the basics of a cell!” Would they have gone on and created like an early version of Spore? You wonder what would have happened if it was like another class. And then there’s just this passion from [Paul] Dillenberger and [Bill] Heinemann, who were the two programmers then, that they just wanted to bring the computer into some element of the classroom. And so I wonder if they would have tried to shoehorn it into something that fit a little less well.
Kelsey Lewin 19:38
Yeah. So let’s jump back a little bit and start with the origins of this thing. So you’ve got three people involved in the creation of the original game. You’ve got Paul Dillenberger, Don Rawitsch – am I saying that right?
Ben Hansen 19:54
Kelsey Lewin 19:54
Okay. I just feel like it’s got like a mouthful of something and like, I’m saying it wrong…
Ben Hansen 19:59
It’s very “Rural Juror,” Yeah.
Kelsey Lewin 20:01
Yeah, exactly. And Bill Heinemann and no, not THAT Bill Heineman, some people might… I just think this is interesting because you maybe saw the high score documentary that Netflix actually put out?
Ben Hansen 20:15
I actually haven’t watched that.
Kelsey Lewin 20:15
Or at least you’ve heard of it?
Ben Hansen 20:16
But yes, I’ve heard of it.
Kelsey Lewin 20:17
Okay. Um, so there is an episode about, she’s Rebecca Hindman these days. But they tell her story and back as like a thirteen-year-old, she was basically the first video game champion. You know, there’s the first big publicized video game competition, right? But I mentioned this to you when I emailed you that I had to do a double-take at the beginning of this video because I was like, “wait, Bill Heineman what wait, that doesn’t look like her and wait, she would have been, like, eight years old when this game was being programmed!” So there are two famous Bill Hienemann game designers. That’s a one with one “N” one with two “Ns”. That’s that was news to me.
Ben Hansen 21:02
It’s very natural for MinnMax, a Patreon about having two “Ns” in our name, to be very natural to be synched up with the Bill Heinemann with two “Ns!”
Kelsey Lewin 21:12
So we got the three players there and they were all student teaching together but at different schools?
Ben Hansen 21:19
Yes. Yep. So two of them were at Bryant and then Don, I forget which school he was at, exactly. And so the game was programmed at Bryant Junior High in Minneapolis here.
Kelsey Lewin 21:30
And Don is a history teacher. He was trying to come up with a way to gamify – but with like dice and a board game type thing – the Oregon Trail. And Paul and Bill were like, “We’re math teachers, right? Let’s do something on a computer, ’cause that’s way cooler. We like computers.”
Ben Hansen 21:47
Yeah, exactly. And then they program it. But I love the idea of, it was for Don’s class. But these two guys are just so passionate and so geeky back in the day, they’re like, “We’ll just take your project for you and do a much better job than you could ever possibly do!” And then they create this masterpiece.
Kelsey Lewin 22:03
And they did this thing in five days. The Oregon Trail was a college project that took five days.
Ben Hansen 22:11
Kelsey Lewin 22:11
That is so wild to me.
Ben Hansen 22:13
I know. It’s mind-boggling. And especially, you know, in the raw interview – I went back and watched all those early interviews – and Bill talks about how the most stressful part of it, which I hadn’t even thought about was, he had to program in the entire calendar from, like, the 1840s and try to get the computer to understand when to rollover dates and all that stuff. I can’t even imagine what a nightmare that would be like! It is… you are starting from scratch, man.
Kelsey Lewin 22:38
Oh, that’s, that’s… Yeah, I can’t even imagine having to do, I mean… Not only having to do that in five days but wanting to do that in five days? Like, this is a self-imposed project that was, you know, not even for their class. So that part of this story is just so fascinating to me.
Ben Hansen 22:56
Kelsey Lewin 22:58
And one of my favorite things about this actually is when they’re talking about, I think Bill’s talking about where they were programming this thing. Like, they’re sitting side-by-side in a janitor’s closet, programming on a teletype.
Ben Hansen 23:11
Kelsey Lewin 23:11
And you somehow have like the layout of this middle school as B-roll for that? Where on Earth did you find the layout for this middle school?
Ben Hansen 23:24
That is such a good question. When I showed the documentary to Leo Vader, another video producer here at MinnMax, he had the same question. Like, “How did you get that B-roll?” The truth is, I have no memory! It was ten years ago that I got that B-roll. I have no idea where it came from. I assume that I got permission tebnyears ago when I started working on this. I think maybe Bill might have sent it over? Or it was on some historical website somewhere? But yeah, what… I mean, that’s the fun of making a documentary is having these Hail Marys of B-roll of like, “Oh, this is perfect!”
Kelsey Lewin 23:56
That was that was so funny to me. I had to I had to pause the video and be like, “How on earth…?”
Ben Hansen 24:03
Yeah, it’s, it’s insane. But the fun thing about it wasn’t in the documentary because I learned it from a later interview. But apparently, so this was 1971 at Bryant Junior High in Minneapolis, and so they tested it on the kids (tested it… That sounds like it’s clinical trial…) They let the kids play it and it took over the school. It was just unbelievably fun. You know, even you know in the early 90s when I was in school, the computer was so fun and groundbreaking my mind so I can’t imagine 1971 just how cool it must have been for these kids to play a computer game. But it took over the school, is incredibly popular. And guess who went to school at Bryant Junior High and was the right age in 1971?
Kelsey Lewin 24:48
Ben Hansen 24:49
Prince! It’s the greatest tragedy of him passing is now I and nobody else can ever ask him about The Oregon Trail but he might have been one of the first people on earth to play The Oregon Trail!
Kelsey Lewin 25:02
Oh, that’s incredible. Yeah, I was curious about that. I wonder how difficult it would be to track down one of these kids who might have actually played the 1971 version of Oregon Trail?
Ben Hansen 25:17
Yeah, there was. So in the documentary, there’s a lot of B-roll footage at the beginning and ending of Bill teaching kids how to play chess. He did an after school chess program. And so I filmed a lot there and filmed a lot with the teachers, actually. And they’re just by chance. There was a teacher that was at the school, who did play the original text version. I don’t know if it’s 1971. It might have been in a neighboring school when it started to spread out once it was on the MECC system. But he says he played that early, early text-only version of Oregon Trail.
Kelsey Lewin 25:49
Ben Hansen 25:50
Kelsey Lewin 25:52
So you grew up in Minnesota, I assume?
Ben Hansen 25:55
Yup, 100 miles west of the cities. Yup.
Kelsey Lewin 25:57
Cool. So I assume you grew up playing The Oregon Trail? Is this something that they told you to be proud of in school? Were they’re like, “Yup, this comes out of Minnesota! This is ours, we made this!” or was that ever even brought up to you?
Ben Hansen 26:12
No. We’re not we’re not familiar with the concept of pride in Minnesota. No, never, never came up. I’m even trying to remember on the splash screen, I don’t think it says that MECC, that for the acronym, the first word is Minnesota. So I don’t think there was any clue. You know, you have to wonder if those games were slightly more popular in Minnesota because of that. But I’ve heard Don talk about in another interview, I think it’s at the GDC talk… well, I forget exactly where it was. Maybe it’s in the raw footage. The point is, Don mentioned at some point that once Oregon Trail was put on the network and started to be sold around to different states and stuff like that, that it became really popular in Ohio. And then the Star Tribune, which is the Minneapolis newspaper, wrote an article about like, “Check out what these cool kids and students in Ohio are doing! They’re playing The Oregon Trail.” And he had to write a letter to the newspaper to be like, “Actually, that’s from here. No one knows it or talks about it. But…”
Kelsey Lewin 27:10
Oh, my gosh, that’s so funny.
Ben Hansen 27:12
Yeah, just because you don’t think about Minnesota as being important to the history of computing, but –
Kelsey Lewin 27:17
Or to the history of Oregon! Like, I assumed, when I was a child, I assumed, like… if you were to ask me, where did this game come out of, I’d be like, “Oh, it’s probably Oregon or something.”
Ben Hansen 27:29
Kelsey Lewin 27:29
It’s probably someone who really cares about the Oregon Trail specifically.
Ben Hansen 27:34
Nope! Yeah, it’s a Minnesota thing, apparently. But yeah, the early days of Minnesota computing. Apparently, it starts with a lot of people that were working on coding? (Is that the best way you phrase that? There’s probably some fancier word.) After World War II, a lot of them came to Minneapolis, and then like UNIVAC got built up, a bunch of different computer-focused early, early computer-focused companies started in Minnesota. And so that is one of the reasons if there were kind of a, you know, we like to call it an early Silicon Valley. And then we really dropped the ball eventually. But there was a lot of talent and programming knowledge in Minnesota in those days, which led to the eventual rise of MECC.
Kelsey Lewin 28:12
Yes, that is that kind of what MECC spun out of? And I guess I’ll backtrack real quick: MECC is the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium? Is that… do I have that right?
Ben Hansen 28:23
Yeah, fun word: consortium.
Kelsey Lewin 28:24
Consortium. Yeah, I always want to call it company because, you know, that’s another “C” word that would work there. But yeah, Consortium. So that’s, well… can you explain what MECC is a little bit for people who might not be familiar? Because it’s not really or at least it didn’t start out as just like a normal computing company.
Ben Hansen 28:45
No. It started out, it was an organization created by the state of Minnesota. Because just trying to unify all these different schools, what programs they had, just trying to share the early computer knowledge in Minnesota… And as far as I understand, it’s the first state to do this to be like, “OK, let’s actually try and get these timeshares in lockstep with each other so we can have a more focused approach to how we’re implementing computers in classrooms and beyond.” And so it was formed by the state of Minnesota, run by the state, funded by Minnesotan tax dollars. And then it just grew and grew over time. And then eventually, it seemed like Minnesota wasn’t that happy with having to continue this company even though it was really successful, and then actually sold it off down the road to private companies.
Kelsey Lewin 29:30
So and this was targeted towards like, elementary, middle school, high schools and stuff, right? Because I mean, you had these big timeshare networks before but these were, like, university level. Those are the only people who are working on computers and learning about computers. But they’re expanding it to younger kids, right? So they can grow up with it and learn about computers.
Ben Hansen 29:52
Yep, exactly. Yeah. “Okay, we’ll put a teletype in the classroom and now you can play Lemonade Stand, the earliest version of that.”
Kelsey Lewin 30:02
And Oregon Trail is their first kind of breakout hit in this network. It’s hard to… you can’t, like, call it a company. It’s not this company publishing software. They’re just kind of giving this to all of the schools in Minnesota. But The Oregon Trail is kind of their first breakout hit, but how did they come to get The Oregon Trail?
Ben Hansen 30:26
So after the college project where this thing was actually created, they had the code printed out so that the full code for the Oregon Trail. Then, Don eventually got a job at MECC. Bill and Paul went off and did teaching. Eventually Bill did programming stuff at UNIVAC (UNISYS? I forget, which came first for the naming). But anyway, so Don went on and got a job at MECC and then they had this timeshare, the computer system. And so he said, “Oh, I might as well put this project on this timeshare and spread it with the entire state of Minnesota.” Which I’m sure, he didn’t say this in the documentary, but I’m sure he’s a little bit of, you know, trying to look good for the new company that you just got hired on to. Like, “Hey, I know how it can help my team out! Here’s this awesome program. I’ll just donate it to the state of Minnesota!”
Kelsey Lewin 31:16
Yeah, yeah, totally. And you touched on this quite a bit in the documentary, getting everyone’s thoughts on that. Because, I mean, he just… this was this thing that he didn’t make and he just kind of turned it over to the state of Minnesota is like, “All right, it’s yours now!” So no one ever made any money off of this thing?
Ben Hansen 31:35
Right, I guess in a way the state of Minnesota eventually did when they sold MECC for $5 million. And that was kind of buoyed by the success of The Oregon Trail but that’s confusing. Yeah. So that he donated over, just handed it over. He didn’t ask their permission. But you know, the way he describes in the documentary is like, “Well, what am I supposed to do here?” Like, there was no copyright over this type of thing. And also, he brought up – this is in the the raw interview – he brought up the idea of like, you know, that it was technically programmed on computers owned by the public school anyway. So if you really wanted to go down the rabbit hole of owns this program and when, it just becomes a mess. But I’m fascinated by this idea of, you know, this guy trying to be selfless, and like, “Oh, I’ll just don’t donate this project for the sake of the public good.” Basically, in his mind, turning it over into copyright-free domain. But then throughout time, it’s like, actually, no, there is a legal owner of this thing. And it’s not the state of Minnesota.
Kelsey Lewin 32:35
Yeah. What’s so interesting about this, there’s there’s two pieces of context around this, right? The first one, which is definitely mentioned in the documentaries, is there’s not a real software industry yet. This is still early 70s. There’s not like, you know… even if they had held on to The Oregon Trail and tried to sell it, there wasn’t really anyone to buy it for a really long time.
Ben Hansen 33:00
Kelsey Lewin 33:02
The best they probably could have done is, like, printed out the code and sold it in a book as a game, you can go type into if you have a machine at home or something like that.
Ben Hansen 33:13
Which, yeah, they eventually did. Creative Computing, that old magazine, got the entire code and printed it in their magazine.
Kelsey Lewin 33:21
Oh, is that right? I didn’t know that! That’s cool.
Ben Hansen 33:22
Yep, yep. So, it’s a sweet issue. It’s got an X-Wing on the cover, in 1978. And so if you had a computer, you know how to program, you could just enter the entire code for The Oregon Trail yourself. So that’s how fast and loose they were with the copyright or ownership of this thing as they were just printing it out in a magazine.
Kelsey Lewin 33:40
Yeah. And you know, then the other piece of context there, which you touched on is: these are teachers! They want to share educational content. Like, the end goal, at the end of the day is for kids to learn and have fun. So, even though they’re not making money off of this thing, they’ve accomplished what they originally set out to do, which is educate kids and make them have fun doing it, right?
Ben Hansen 34:04
Yeah, absolutely. And yeah, we talk a lot in the documentary about how they feel about it. And, you know, I think they’re all in the same camp of like, “Well, it’d be nice to be a millionaire, but I guess this is fine. You know, it’s cool to be behind the scenes in this thing that was successful. And nobody’s going to court over this thing,” which I’d imagine, you know, different people in this situation might eventually try and bring a lawyer into it. To be like, “Yeah, actually, how does this work?” Because it’s a little rough. And I think in this day and age as well I would hope that, if this situation were to happen again, a company like MECC would have, you know, given them a couple thousand or something along the way, just as a thank you or a “Please be quiet and don’t sue us” type of deal.
Kelsey Lewin 34:46
Right! Yeah, so everyone seems to be pretty okay with the way things shake out, which I guess I mean, you kind of have to be right? I mean, what what uses it to be really mad about the millions you don’t have, right? But was it was nice to see that part of the interview that everyone was just kind of like, “Yeah, you know, at least we made something really cool. Most people can’t even say that right.”
Ben Hansen 35:13
Right, because yeah, I mean, the crazy thing then is, you know, MECC was sold for $5 million to a private company and then another private company bought that private company for $125 million.
Kelsey Lewin 35:27
And I thought that was so interesting too, just… You know, you don’t ever really hear about the government having something like this and then selling it off. It’s just a really bizarre situation there. You have a Minnesota taxpayer-funded company that’s also selling software, and then the government sells off MECC. I mean it’s just like this weird… You know, normally when you think of state-run programs, that’s not something that could be doing any of that.
Ben Hansen 35:58
Yeah, I didn’t know it was even possible. I mean, has any other government ever developed a game nearly this successful? I assume there’s probably some like…
Kelsey Lewin 36:08
Ben Hansen 36:08
Kelsey Lewin 36:09
Ben Hansen 36:10
Kelsey Lewin 36:11
That’s not US government, but…
Ben Hansen 36:12
Wait a second. Okay, quick history lesson. How does that work? So the Russian government funded Tetris?
Kelsey Lewin 36:17
Sort of it was created while… I mean, I am no expert on the history of Tetris. But it was created and owned by Russia because of where Alexey Pajitnov was when creating it, so kind of like what you were saying with like, “Well, technically those computers belong to the public schools, you know…”
Ben Hansen 36:38
Right, but Minnesota is a little more chill than the Soviet Union.
Kelsey Lewin 36:43
Ben Hansen 36:44
That’s nice. Actually, it’s funny, you mentioned Tetris, there’s a weird detour in this filming of this documentary and everything were, back in 2013, when I was at Game Informer, every month we’d go on a cover story trip and I would film interviews there. And so we were on the cover story for Thief, the Thief reboot in Montreal. And just randomly, I walked into the lobby of the hotel that we’re staying at. And I was looking at this guy standing in the corner of the room. And I leaned over to Bryan Vore, my coworker at the time. I was like, “Bryan, I think that Steve Wozniak.” And Bryan goes, “No, no, that’s just some fat guy.” Like, “No, I think that’s Steve Wizniak!” So went over and introduced myself and sure enough, it was Steve Wozniak! And he was very nice. He can talk a mile a minute. And then he said, like, I asked him if we could record an interview with him. And he’s like, “Yeah, come to my hotel room tomorrow at this time, come right in and we’ll film an interview.” “Okay, great!” And so we went to his hotel room, and he was obsessed with playing Tetris. Like he had a, there’s a Japanese, clear Astroboy Game Boy. And he was playing Tetris.
Kelsey Lewin 37:54
Oh, cool, the Famitsu one, I think?
Ben Hansen 37:56
I’m not sure. But he said it’s his original Game Boy that he loves so much. And so we interviewed him for a while and then also filmed him playing Tetris in his hotel room, as he told old stories about how he, you know, donated or actually gave a red white and blue Game Boy to George W. Bush at some event. And it is just bizarre how much that guy loves Tetris. And I remember kicking myself because, during that interview, we talked about Apple’s history with gaming, you know, his relationship developing breakout and why Steve Jobs hates games and all that fun stuff. And always in the back of my mind, I was like, “I should ask him about his thoughts on The Oregon Trail on the Apple II. I should get this down, but it’s a Game Informer video,” and it felt so selfish. I didn’t do it and I was kicking myself. But I had and I still have Steve Wozniak’s business card from that interview. And so when I was trying to finish off this documentary I was like, “Oh man that’d be cool to actually line up a quick zoom interview with Steve Wozniak.” And so we had it lined up. I was going back and forth with his wife and actually talked to his wife several times on the phone. And she was a teacher, and had actually worked a lot with MECC back in the 80s.
Kelsey Lewin 39:10
Ben Hansen 39:11
And so it was perfect. And then they ended up bailing ten minutes before the interview.
Kelsey Lewin 39:16
Oh, my gosh!
Ben Hansen 39:17
It was a bummer. But kind of their, the way they phrased it is you know, Janet Wozniak’s like, “Well, we kind of see it like everybody gets one thing with Woz. Everybody gets one interview and you had yours and we don’t want to give you two.”
Kelsey Lewin 39:32
Oh no, but you’re like “No, but that was for Game Informer! That’s different!”
Ben Hansen 39:35
Yeah, exactly. Good luck trying to explain that to the Wozniaks. Yes, no way.
Kelsey Lewin 39:39
“I’m a different Ben, I’ve been reborn!” [laughter]
Ben Hansen 39:42
It’s funny, too. I can’t imagine what their life is like. But when we’re trying to line up when the interview would happen, she goes, “Well, I don’t think the next two weeks will work because we’re celebrating Woz’s birthday.” I was like, “For two weeks!” I was like, I don’t know what rich people do, maybe that just means they’re on a yacht for two weeks? I don’t know what that is.
Kelsey Lewin 40:04
Man. All right, I should at least celebrate my birthday for a full day, now, I feel like if people take two weeks… Okay, so let’s talk about that part. Because The Oregon Trail does have a pretty interesting little Apple II thing. I mean, that’s that’s kind of the one that everyone remembers? Everyone, I guess, who didn’t grow up in Minnesota in the mid 70s.
Ben Hansen 40:28
Kelsey Lewin 40:29
Is that that Apple II version, which of course adds graphics and now it’s like a proper video game, right? So, tell me the story about that. Because MECC basically was just taking bids on, like, what computers they were going to put in all the schools. And it just kind of happened to be the Apple II. And that might be why all the schools got Apple IIs in, like, the whole United States?
Ben Hansen 40:55
Yeah, that’s the way Don tells it. That is, “Well, they just happened to be that they had the lowest bid,” which seems wild that Apple would have the lowest price for something? But apparently back in the day, it was different. And so the way that Don tells it, is then because MECC chose Apple to be the official computer of MECC and put in all the schools. And because Minnesota was a leader when it came to educational software, then the other states looked at Minnesota and said, “OK well, we’ll go with Apple II, as well.” And so in Don’s mind, that was a big factor in Apple’s success in that era. And actually, I didn’t include this part in the documentary. But Don talked about how in 1982, MECC had a computing conference, and Steve Jobs actually came and met the folks from MECC and gave a presentation there, even though he showed up late and insisted on having a fruit plate apparently to eat instead of like, you know, tater tot hot dish, whatever they were eating in Minnesota. And I guess the speech that he gave was largely about welcoming IBM to the world of computing in that era, because everyone was worried about this competition between Apple and IBM. And he was like, “Oh, no, we need people to understand what a computer is. So if IBM can help on that front, that’s great.” So there is a fun, deep connection between MECC and Apple. And it’s the reason I loved my Apple II growing up was mainly because of The Oregon Trail. Number Munchers was fine. But it was no Oregon Trail.
Kelsey Lewin 42:14
Yeah, I think I think that’s fascinating. I mean, I don’t know, I’m sure there’s obviously more than one dimension to Apples takeover of the world. But I mean, that is pretty significant, even just for one state. Even if no other state was influenced by Minnesota, which I’m sure they were, I believe Don that there was at least some influence there. I mean that’s pretty big to be THE computer and all of the schools.
Ben Hansen 42:39
Yeah. And I mean, just think about it. Like, it became a fun association in your mind. Apple just meant “the fun in schools” for an entire generation.
Kelsey Lewin 42:48
Ben Hansen 42:48
And, yeah, it’s fun to hear which version of The Oregon Trail people enjoy. Because in my mind, it is the green-and-black or the color version from 1985. But for a lot of people, it’s the 3.1 version. Or a lot of people are really into The Oregon Trail II – which, I feel guilty with this – but I have never even played. Like those later versions still have a huge groundswell of support. And so I felt bad for not having more B-roll from the later versions that I’m sure people are nostalgic about.
Kelsey Lewin 43:17
Yeah, but I think I mean, you are really pulling from this early 1971 history of The Oregon Trail. And the documentary goes into the success of it, of course, but because all of those versions have so little to do with the three original creators, I mean, I don’t think it’s wrong to not have explored all of those fully.
Ben Hansen 43:42
Yeah, I guess that… Which, by the way, trying to have interesting B-roll for a video game that doesn’t have a screen is surprisingly difficult!
Kelsey Lewin 43:50
Yeah, you did. I mean, I was thinking about that the whole time I was watching this thing and was very impressed that it was like… it never felt noticeable that you were just trying to shove whatever you could in there, right? It always fit, it always looked good. But I can totally understand how how difficult that that must be. I mean, you had some printout of the codes as B-roll, you’ve had some hand-drawn or handwritten code as some of the B-roll, too. Is that just something that Bill or Paul kind of kept laying around? They just had original writing? Written code?
Ben Hansen 44:33
Yep. Bill has that original code. And so it was… I’m amazed that I had this much foresight, apparently, in 2009 to be like, “OK, Bill, just let me film every possible angle of B-roll of you rolling through this code.” Because yeah, it turns out it was really important. But I really would love to play that original version. And so I can’t program but anybody that can program can probably get that code from that old magazine and actually program a workable text version of the original Oregon Trail. I don’t think that exists, but I would love to see it.
Kelsey Lewin 45:08
Yeah. I can’t imagine no one’s done that. But I don’t know, maybe not.
Ben Hansen 45:13
I don’t know, judging from trying to talk about this documentary, I think people are at best casually interested in The Oregon Trail.
Kelsey Lewin 45:20
Yeah. And I think, like you were saying, everyone is really just attached to whatever version they played in the computer lab growing up. So, you know, the Apple II version or the early 3.1 or whatever versions. I mean, those are ones that I think people care about. They’re like, “Wait, no graphics? But why would I come back to that?”
Ben Hansen 45:40
Yeah, exactly. But hopefully, I don’t know, maybe the Strong or you guys can do it. Somewhere along the line I think it’d be cool to have an actual working version of that old text-based Oregon Trail.
Kelsey Lewin 45:50
Yeah, just make them do it at the Strong. They’ll set up games for researchers there. Like, if you’re your researcher going to their library, and you’re like, “I need to play this PC Engine game” or whatever. So you should just make Andrew Borman or someone type out the entire Oregon Trail because you have to play the original Oregon Trail.
Ben Hansen 46:09
“You must do it.” By the way, they have been amazing. I sent a rough cut of this documentary to you and Frank. And you’re both are like, “Oh, well, you should reach out to the Strong” I was like, “Yeah, I probably should. I hadn’t really focused too much on that.” Reached out to them. And they said, “Yeah, we have a bunch of MECC materials in the library and you’re absolutely welcome to use any of it in the documentary.” I was like, “Great. Do you have any like, video?” “Yeah, we have video and pictures.” I was like, “Cool. When you think you can get that to me?” And they’re like, “Uh, probably tomorrow?” What?! For digitizing all of these old amazing MECC training videos and stuff, which there’s some really… it’s really quick, but it’s bizarre footage later on the documentary of this internal MECC training video, which is really jokey where they’re like dancing in the office and having like, nerf wars and stuff…
Kelsey Lewin 46:35
Oh, is that where that came from? Oh, that’s great!
Ben Hansen 46:57
Yeah, so thanks to the Strong for all that, it was amazing.
Kelsey Lewin 47:00
Uh, yeah, we don’t have that kind of turnaround time in our library. So maybe don’t say that out loud ’cause now we’re gonna look bad.
Ben Hansen 47:07
Oh, sorry. Yeah, they have a gigantic staff…
Kelsey Lewin 47:11
No, that’s, that’s awesome, though. Yeah, the Strong Museum of play in Rochester, New York. They have they have the MECC collection. So it’s just a big… I forget who donated that, but someone donated it. Just a huge amount of MECC-related stuff there. So for for researchers now there’s all kinds of cool, fun stuff to dig through!
Ben Hansen 47:31
Yeah, they have, yeah. I think Don donated a fair amount. And then it was… God, somebody in the marketing division for MECC, I believe, donated a huge amount just based on the inventory that they had. But, Kelsey, I guess you could say that if you’re looking to research MECC, the strong museum is a bit of a –
Kelsey Lewin 47:48
Ben Hansen 47:49
Kelsey Lewin 47:52
I’m not doing it.
Ben Hansen 47:53
Moving on. Okay. That’s fine.
Kelsey Lewin 47:54
[laughter] That’s a good one, though.
Ben Hansen 47:58
Kelsey Lewin 48:01
Oh, God. So OK, when you decide to do a documentary like this, where do you start? Like, I guess first of all, why The Oregon Trail? Because you said wasn’t like a Minnesota pride thing at least growing up. So is this like a “later” Minnesota pride thing? …Or?
Ben Hansen 48:16
It’s an under-the-radar Minnesota pride thing! It’s a good question. I mean, I didn’t play a lot of video games as a kid. I did not come from a very wealthy family at all. And so we had a hand-me-down Apple II. And then eventually I got a Game Gear. And that was gaming for me until the PlayStation one. So all that Nintendo stuff, never touched it. It’s just another world to me. And so Oregon Trail just meant the world as like the “great game” on Apple II that I would play all the time. And so I’ve always loved it. And then… yeah, I’m trying to remember, it was probably just at some point learned that “Oh, yeah, it was made in Minnesota. And that MECC is a Minnesotan company. And so yeah, when I was getting my career start as a video producer, it’s like, “Well, this is a story that I would love to tell!” And then just started reaching out and getting connections, finding emails, and you know, you get turned down. A lot of places, like a lot of the MECC folks turned me down, they didn’t want to do the interview, which is totally fair. But then, you know, once Bill was on board, then maybe he can reach out to Don and Paul and make that connection a little bit easier. So just kind of snowballs. And it was really fun. But also strangely emotional, going back through all of my old emails from 2009 and 2010, when finishing off this documentary, because I can see just like how hungry I am to make this thing happen. And I was so excited about having some connection to the game industry because this was you know, before Game Informer, and everything. And so I loved games so much. Back then, obviously, I still do, but in particular, I love like the indie game scene. So I had reached out to a bunch of developers and composers from indie games to see if I could use their music in The Oregon Trail documentary and so this was 2009. So I loved World of Goo. So reached out to Kyle Gabler. I don’t know exactly how you pronounce it, but you know. Co-creator and then also composer World of Goo and all those Tomorrow Corporation games and is fun reading to those emails where he’s like, “Yeah, so it’s like a nonprofit document about The Oregon Trail? You can use whatever music you want for me!” Like, “Oh my god, that’s amazing!” But I just could never make that World of Goo music fit with the documentary. As amazing as it is like this kind of Tim Burton-y soundtrack was not really lining up. So didn’t end up using too much of that.
Kelsey Lewin 50:32
A soundtrack you really liked, so you were like, “I’m gonna put this in my documentary.”
Ben Hansen 50:36
Yeah, exactly. Yeah, it was really that simple. Or, you know, there was stuff… I guess the song in the beginning, which is like Jonah in the Wilderness, at the very start of the documentary… That was from, there’s a game and old indie game called RunMan. I don’t know if you remember this one…
Kelsey Lewin 50:53
I totally don’t, no.
Ben Hansen 50:54
Is it RunMan or Star Man…? But they had just a bunch of public domain songs as the backdrop for this indie platformer. And that was one of them. I remember playing that and be like, “Ooh, oing into the wilderness… that works on multiple levels with The Oregon Trail and it’s design so let’s go for it.” So that was a fun one. But then, just on the music front real quick, too. I went back and played The Oregon Trail again, obviously, just to capture B-roll. (Beat it first try, no big deal, please relax everybody, yes, thank you, thank you!) But I went and tracked all the songs that they use in the Apple II version of the Oregon Trail to see if any of those could be used in the documentary, because I thought it’d be so cool to have the full soundtrack to the documentary be those original old songs except, like, modern versions of them. And it turns out, I think having like Yankee Doodle as the background music documentary would be distracting and lame.
Kelsey Lewin 51:47
I was gonna say, isn’t all of the Oregon Trail music like, just old public domain nonsense?
Ben Hansen 51:53
Yes, yes it is. But they have one song in there, which is Wayfaring Stranger, which is also you know, an old public domain song at this point, kind of a hymn. And it’s an awesome song. And it’s like the best song in that original game. And the fun thing is that they, that’s the song during the credits of The Last of Us Part II, if you remember the ending of that game. So I thought, “Oh, my God, that’s perfect.” And so I really wanted to use that song and actually contracted out with a member of the band Hitpoints, which is an awesome video game cover band that kind of focuses on, like, bluegrass covers and stuff. And so they actually created a new version of Wayfaring Stranger to use in the documentary for us, which is very nice of Eli Bishop over there. So it was fun to have, you know, one song that was from the original game then also was connected in a slight way to gaming in 2020 for the full circle, here.
Kelsey Lewin 52:48
I love that. That’s great. So yeah, see, okay, when you started doing this documentary, you’re not a Game Informer yet. So I mean, are you still pretty new to interviewing in general at this point? Or you like, you know, have some experience with previous jobs under your belt?
Ben Hansen 53:08
Yes, some experience and yeah, it’s fun to go back and listen to that raw footage because I here, myself really sticking to my questions. I overrode all the questions and was like, militant about it, but I wasn’t as tight as I thought I’d be back then. Because I was, you know, 23 just getting started. But I done a lot of interviews for the community TV station, but it was genuinely about a lot of interviews with like, you know, mayors of suburbs in Minnesota. Or I’d go to like, Falcon Heights day in the park and go and interview somebody about how good their ice cream tastes and why they like the city of Falcon Heights, MN. So it was like that level of professional interviews, I guess.
Kelsey Lewin 53:47
Well, I guess I don’t have access to the raw footage. But I thought that given the answers that these guys gave in the interview, you must have been asking good questions. You seemed like a pro even back in 2009 even if you didn’t feel like one.
Ben Hansen 54:03
That’s very sweet! Yeah, I’m glad even watching it now. It’s like, “God, I can’t believe they were so energetic and bubbly when I was just some idiot kid probably fumbling with the tripod.” Like, I can’t believe that they’re this generous, but I guess, you know… it’s so weird to talk about this in the past tense. But, you know, back in 2009, 2010, I guess they’re just excited to do any video interview about this thing.
Kelsey Lewin 54:24
Yeah, yeah. I’m curious if that’s changed at all throughout the years. I mean, I know like you said, there really haven’t been at least publicly, a whole heck of a lot that they’ve done since but, you know, I wonder if that kind of like kicked things off for them or like, “Hey, we could be talking about this…”
Ben Hansen 54:43
Well, maybe! You know, I did there was… it was fun to read the email exchanges even of Don before he agreed to the interview. He was very insistent, like, “What happens to this documentary if it wins awards? Do we get to partake in those awards?” Like, he he’s learned a lot since handing over Oregon Trail for free.
Kelsey Lewin 55:01
That’s pretty funny. So are documentaries in MinnMax’s future? Is this the thing you want to… I mean, I know this is going back to something you started in 2009. But is this something you want to get back into doing now?
Ben Hansen 55:13
God, it’d be fun. Yeah, I would like to have the occasional documentary at MinnMax. You know, I’m the only person full time at MinnMax. And so we have a lot of great contributors. But as you probably realize, documentaries take a lot of time. And so…
Kelsey Lewin 55:27
Yeah, anything takes a lot of time. That’s why we make other people come on this podcast with their research!
Ben Hansen 55:32
Smart. Really smart way to go. Yeah. So I would love to do it. It’s just a matter of, “Okay, how many bonus videos, reaction videos, gameplay streams are we not going to do for the sake of a large documentary?” And the views on The Oregon Trail documentary so far have not been great. So it’s kind of… but you have to figure out what really matters to the community. I’m excited for our Patreon supporters, because I think this would be so fun to support a Patreon and then this just drops out of the blue and kind of opens the door of like, “Oh, this Patreon could also create video game documentaries on a regular basis as an option for some of the content,” because the beautiful thing about Patreon is it’s a two way street. You know, let us know what you’d like us to do and we’ll try our best to follow our passions and meet in the middle. And so I would love to do it. But it’s, it’s tough even, because you think about hundreds and hundreds of hours going into producing this documentary versus if I just got those three guys on a Zoom call and made it three-hour podcast walking through the history of The Oregon Trail. It would be more thorough. It probably be more educational. And that would take three hours to produce, you know? So it’s that tough balance of how much is a well produced documentary worth? I don’t know if you have any insight into that, Kelsey?
Kelsey Lewin 56:47
No, I mean, it’s it is tough, because I mean… the thing about documentaries is like, I could never get my mom to watch that. Right? Like, never be like, “Mom, three hour Zoom call with the creators of The Oregon Trail.” No one outside of the hardcore would care. But you’re right, in that it would have a lot more information and be a lot more illuminating for those of us who do care, right? But for something, and I mean, I’m literally speaking about Netflix, his documentary series “High Score” in this scenario, even though you know, I have my issues with that. But my mom watched it and was texting me about it. And she’s never cared about video game history, you know, why would she? So there’s absolutely a power in like a well-produced thing, whether it’s a documentary or a book even, an article, whatever. I mean, there’s a lot of value in that in it being capable of reaching a much broader audience. But I mean, like you were saying, I mean, I want to try to help you fix those numbers on your documentary, because it’s definitely worth watching.
Ben Hansen 57:56
Kelsey Lewin 57:56
Everyone listening should go watch it. But you know, at the very least a well-produced documentary like that has the capability of reaching a really wide audience of people who might not otherwise be interested. And I think especially because you go with the Minnesota angle with this, that this could be a thing, like… I could see a history teacher or a computer teacher, whatever, at a high school showing this is like part of the class curriculum.
Ben Hansen 58:22
Yeah. Oh, that’d be awesome. We just need some sort of timeshare system like MECC to put it on to get around the state of Minnesota, because cold emailing local TV stations has not gone well. But that’s my… look, this doesn’t mean to be a tragedy about how it has a disappointing number of views. I’m happy to produce it. And the beauty of the Patreon is they support us, we create fun stuff, and it’s a it’s a good handshake.
Kelsey Lewin 58:43
Yeah. Yeah, that’s for sure. So, but you did say that Minnesotans don’t have pride. But you made a whole documentary about how this thing came out of Minnesota and, and how that’s cool.
Ben Hansen 58:58
That is true.
Kelsey Lewin 58:59
So are you are you trying to help Minnesotans have pride? Is that the end game here?
Ben Hansen 59:04
Yes. Absolutely. In the very… Yes. In the least, I want people to acknowledge – well, not the world – but I want Minnesotans to acknowledge that yes, The Oregon Trail came from here and it is one of our greatest cultural exports. I really think it’s like, “OK, we got Bob Dylan, we have Prince, we have the Coen brothers. And we should put The Oregon Trail in that Pantheon.”
Kelsey Lewin 59:24
Absolutely. Yeah. Absolutely belongs up there with those guys. \
Ben Hansen 59:29
It’ll be a tough sell, but that’s the mission of a documentary ultimately.
Kelsey Lewin 59:34
Well, I’ve never lived in Minnesota, except for that month that I lived there, helping you guys over at Game Informer, but it’s a really great state and I think you guys should have some pride in it. And The Oregon Trail obviously is a very, very influential and cool game that everyone remembers and enjoys. So yeah, be proud of it.
Ben Hansen 59:56
Yes, absolutely. Yeah. Minnesotans, be proud of it. Damn it.
Kelsey Lewin 1:00:00
I mean, your show was called MinnMax.
Ben Hansen 1:00:02
That is true. Wait a minute, I guess it’s my core mission!
Kelsey Lewin 1:00:06
You really are just spreading the spreading the Minnesota love around!
Ben Hansen 1:00:12
We’re trying our best.
Kelsey Lewin 1:00:15
All right, Ben, thank you so much for being on the show. Where can people find you?
Ben Hansen 1:00:19
Yeah, you can find us on Patreon, patreon.com/MinnMax (two “Ns”) you can check out the tiers there. Or check out the MinnMax show podcast, airs every week. And it’s a good hub for figuring out the wealth of other content that we’ve produced, including our series, the Deepest Dive, which is the best, most thorough discussion about games on the internet, where we talk about games for hours and hours at length. And you were on our discussion of Animal Crossing New Horizons A while ago,
Kelsey Lewin 1:00:45
I was Yeah, and I enjoyed it a lot. I really like the Deepest Dive. I think that’s… you guys manage to find in a somehow extremely crowded gaming space, you’ve managed to find something that no one else was doing, actually. And do it well.
Ben Hansen 1:01:01
Oh, thank you. Yeah, it is intimidating. You know, we just finished the Deepest Dive on Super Mario 64. And so to bill it as, “we’re going to have the best most thorough discussion about Super Mario 64 on the internet” seems insane. But then at the end of it, it’s like, “Well, we talked about the game for, what, six hours? We had hundreds of people commenting on specific things about the design of Super Mario 64 that we shared on the show.” So I feel confident saying it’s the most thorough discussion about Super Mario 64 on the internet. And so we’ve gone through even Chrono Trigger. I think our best one is the Final Fantasy VII Remake. It was just an amazing discussion. And that one I think is over 14 hours, but it’s a very fun 14 hours. Don’t send it to your mom.
Kelsey Lewin 1:01:44
Yeah, I don’t think she’ll listen to that.
Ben Hansen 1:01:45
That’s fine. But yeah, the MinnMax show podcasts is the main one you can check out.
Kelsey Lewin 1:01:49
Awesome. Well, Ben, thank you. Yeah. And maybe I’ll be on MinnMax again sometime.
Ben Hansen 1:01:56
Please, please do you’re welcome whenever you’d like.
Kelsey Lewin 1:01:59
All right, cool. Well, thanks for being on the show.
Ben Hansen 1:02:01
Yeah. Thanks for having me.
Kelsey Lewin 1:02:03
Thanks for listening to the Video Game History Hour brought to you by the Video Game History Foundation. If you have questions or comments for the show, you can find us on Twitter @gamehistoryhour or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Did you know that Video Game History Foundation is a 501c3 nonprofit and that all of your contributions are tax deductible? You can support this podcast and all of our other work on Patreon or at gamehistory.org/donate. This episode of the Video Game History Hour was produced by Robin Kunimune and edited by Michael Carrell. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you next time.