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Designer of The Oregon Trail Philip Bouchard Talks about Technology

Philip Bouchard

The Oregon Trail. Thought to be one the most successful educational games, was first developed in 1971. Lead designer of the game, Philip Bouchard fully describes his experiences with building such a masterpiece which would go on to have a long-lasting legacy of more than 40 years. Philip further discusses his views on the evolution of technology and the significance of how technology will affect our lives in the years to come.

The Interview

1 |What has 32 years of software development taught you about the technology industry, but also in general terms, about life?

What I learned about the technology industry:  From the very beginning of my training and professional experience in technology, my interest was not so much in the technology itself, but in what sorts of applications the technology enabled.  As I worked to imagine and design these applications, I quickly developed a second interest, which is how to ensure that my applications are always friendly and intuitive.  Therefore, instead of focusing on the technology, I always focused on the human interactions with the software and the device.  I sought to understand what was going on inside the head of each user as he or she learned to use the software.  Although technology changes from year to year, human nature remains the same – that is, human psychological needs and responses remain constant.  That said, our cultural understanding of the typical conventions that we can use to operate our devices does gradually change over time, and must be considered when designing appropriate user interfaces for current times.

The Oregon Trail | Main Menu

What I learned about life:  My decades of experience designing software taught me a great deal about working with teams.  No matter how talented and experienced I may be, my final design will always be better if I incorporate selected ideas and insights from other people.  Furthermore, a strong team is a force multiplier.  If I work with a talented team that has 3 or 4 other key members, then I can complete far more projects than if I try to do everything myself.  Therefore, it is in my own best interest to be a highly reliable and sought-after teammate.  I strive not just for personal success, but for team success.  Each of my teammates should feel that they are respected and appreciated, and that working with me is both enjoyable and productive.  Furthermore, at appropriate times I seek additional feedback from people outside the team, to gain even more insight – as well as buy-in from key stakeholders.

Hunting Buffalo

2 | With your impressive dedication to the field of computer software, from your perspective, how has technology changed the way people live their lives and how much influence has it brought?

Technology has had a huge impact on the way that people live – for thousands of years.  The invention of metalworking – including bronze, iron, and steel – led to all sorts of useful tools (and weapons) that had a huge impact on how people lived.  The invention of glassmaking led to the creation of lenses, which allowed the invention of microscopes and the discovery of microorganisms, which led to the creation of vaccines and antibiotics.  The invention of steam engines produced the Industrial Revolution, completely changing both our manufacturing and our transportation systems.  The first 60 years of the twentieth century (1900 to 1960) saw the invention and/or proliferation of airplanes, automobiles, telephones, electric lighting, radio, television, assembly-line manufacturing, plastics and other synthetic materials, nuclear weapons, space satellites, and computers – all of which forever changed how we live.

The most visible technological changes of the past 50 years are encompassed in our portable electronic devices – our cell phones, tablets, laptops, and other devices.  A great number of distinct inventions have made this all possible – such as transistors, integrated circuits, touch screens, cellular communications, fiber optics, GPS, the Internet, and cloud computing.  However, equally dramatic changes are occurring in biotechnology – the most obvious being the ability to sequence the genome of any living creature.  This is going to have a huge impact on both medicine and agriculture.  Our methods of energy production are also evolving rapidly.  New types of materials are constantly being developed, with impacts on many different industries.  And self-driving cars may soon have a huge impact on our transportation systems.  In a very real sense, the impact of technology on our lives is constantly accelerating.  Therefore we are likely to see even greater changes over the next 50 years than we have in the past 50 years.

3 | With the advances in technology being evident from the first ever phone to now the current state of technology, what can we achieve in five years with future technology?

Most attempts to predict the future of technology are based on extrapolations of what we see happening in the present.  Therefore it makes sense to extrapolate the effects of component miniaturization, better AI (artificial intelligence), improved genomic knowledge, the incorporation of “smart” devices into everyday objects, increased use of wireless communications, more cloud-based computing, more reliance on “big data”, and so on.  However, the actual future will also be the result of many game-changing inventions that are very difficult to predict right now – but that will have a huge impact on the future direction of technology.

To provide a concrete example from recent history – few people in 1990 were predicting that the upcoming decade would include the invention of the Internet, much less that it would soon have a huge impact on our lives.  A decade later, in 2000, the Internet was all the rage, leading to a market bubble in tech stocks – but nearly everyone saw the future of the Internet as being all about “e-commerce” and little else.  A few years later, the invention of “social media” completely changed our ideas of what the Internet could do for us – leading to phenomena such as Facebook, Twitter, user-generated data, crowdsourcing, and so on.  And the incorporation of easy Internet access into our cell phones changed the entire landscape of the Internet once again.  Yet relatively few people predicted any of these things until they actually began to happen.

Therefore I will eagerly watch how current trends continue to develop, but I’ll also keep my eyes open for the game-changing inventions that will dramatically redirect how the future unfolds.

Matt's Store

4 | Having created the most successful educational computer game, the Oregon Trail, how have you come to accepting the legacy that this game has produced? How does it feel to know that you have created a lasting effect which is still felt more than 40 years on from its production?

Our goal in 1984 and 1985, as we designed and built the Apple II version of The Oregon Trail, was to create a product that would be quite successful – lots of fun to play but also providing genuine educational value.  Soon after its release in July 1985, it became clear that we had achieved our goals.  Therefore it was no big surprise that people were still fondly remembering (and playing) the game five years later, in 1990.  On the other hand, it was a huge surprise to me that people were still talking about the game 25 and 30 years later.  I would never have predicted that.  Needless to say, I am quite pleased with this outcome.

However, there is a small misunderstanding that continues to be perpetuated in nearly every article I see about The Oregon Trail.  The problem is that people confuse the classic version of the game (1985) with the original version of the game (1971).  The original was a small text-only game that few people today remember.  However, it was quite successful in its time, and that success led to our creating a brand new game, designed from scratch, for the Apple II in 1984-85.  (It was later ported to the IBM as well.)  All the details and memes that people associate with the classic game were first invented for the 1985 product – the tiny ox and wagon, dying of dysentery, and so on.  In other words, the game was invented in two equally important phases – in 1971, when some of the basic concepts were first formulated, and in 1985, when all of the other core ideas and conventions were invented.

Joey has dysentery

I provide a good summary of this history in an article that I published on Medium:

5 | Who are the most important people you follow on a daily basis?

This question is a bit tricky for me because I don’t actually follow anyone on a daily basis.  That said, I am indeed an avid daily consumer of information.  My mental model is not to follow specific people, but to rely on trusted sources of information.

On a typical day, I will read news and information stories from NPR, Bloomberg Businessweek, CNN, The Economist, The New Yorker, and several other sources.  I recognize the names of many of the regular contributors to these publications, but I don’t specifically follow these people.  Throughout the day I often find myself wanting more information on specific topics.  I will typically do an internet search to get answers, which sometimes leads me to Wikipedia, but often to other websites as well.

When I visit Medium, I tend to seek out articles by a few specific people, especially Ethan Siegel.

I like to read highly regarded non-fiction books, especially those related to natural science or language.  But nearly every book is by a different author.

On the entertainment side, each year I buy the latest edition of “The Year’s Best Science Fiction”, edited by Gardner Dozois.  Every year, as I look over the list of included authors, I see many names that are familiar to me, because most of these same authors have appeared in previous editions of the series. 

6 | What are some tips for students wishing to go into a technology-related career who want to study computer science at university?

My advice is to keep in mind what you hope to achieve with the technology, rather than just studying the technology itself.  In other words, think of technology as the means to achieve an end, rather than an end in itself.  If you don’t yet know what you hope to achieve with technology – or you don’t care – then an alternate approach is to consider what specific types of technology or aspects of technology seem most fascinating to you.  Become an expert in those specific technologies, and then see where it leads you.

7 | Do you have a reading list of books that you think would be helpful for all students?

I’ll keep it simple by recommending just one book: “Creativity, Inc.” by Ed Catmull.  This book contains all sorts of wonderful lessons for a technology student.  Ed Catmull was the founder of Pixar, and he has led the company for many years.  Pixar is, of course, a technology company with a specific mission – to create wonderful animated films.  But running a successful technology company is difficult – and success depends just as much upon human interactions as it does upon brilliant technology.  Catmull provides great insights into how to lead such an organization to a successful outcome – as well as the pitfalls to avoid along the way.