What Can The Oregon Trail Teach Us About Personal Finance?

Posted by Jacob St. Martin on March 13, 2013 in Gaming Lifestyle -- Share:

The Oregon Trail is one of the most beloved video games of all time. A game built with education in mind, it gained massive popularity and became a favorite of elementary students. While many learning centered games have been developed, none have had the impact of the Oregon Trail.

For those who are unfamiliar, the Oregon Trail takes the player back to the mid 1800s during the land rush across the American West. Simulating a covered wagon journey from Independence, Missouri, to the Oregon Willamette valley, the game presents challenges faced by early settlers.

Oregon Trail

Along the way, the player manages their team of settlers in the hope of staving off disease, starvation, and death. Each decision brings will either help or hinder the progress of your wagon and bring life or death to the people riding on it.

Clearly, this game was made to teach kids about history, but like many things in life, there’s more than just one lesson to be had. Much of the Oregon Trail’s core gameplay is time and resource management. It’s a balance between speed, health, and supply useage. Upset that balance, and your covered wagon will begin leaving behind tombstones.

While the stakes usually aren’t life and death, the balancing act in the Oregon Trail is similar to the real-life balance of personal finance. Money, at it’s heart, is like any game resource. It’s there to be used, and efficiently managed. A game like theOregon Trailcan show us the basic principles of this resource management:

1. Budget

Early in the game, the first important decision is buying supplies. This is the spot which makes and breaks most wagon parties. There’s only so much money on hand, even though there are a lot of useful things worth buying. Knowing what to buy, and how much, is absolutely crucial since there aren’t many chances to correct mistakes.

Oregon Trail General StoreThe personal finance application is correctly managing paychecks, and knowing where money is going vs. where it should be going. In other words, creating a budget is the first important step towards strong personal finance. Even wealthy people balance the finances of what’s going on inside their homes; arguably exercising this skill is what got them wealthy in the first place. People who are aware of what their money is doing tend to end up with more than those who don’t.

Looking over a month’s expenses is a sobering experience, but it’s worth it. Being able to expect costs will prevent you from overspending in one hour and leaving another woefully short. In a way, it’s not unlike buying goods for a white canvassed Conestoga wagon. Count the cost before putting money down.

2. Decisions today matter tomorrow

Each decision in Oregon Trail has meaningful consequences. Some are immediate, like trying to ford a 5 foot deep river, and others arise much later. For instance, taking a leisurely journey early seems like a good idea until party members begin starving during the winter months. Similarly, it’s also possible to race through at a breakneck pace. However, it’s a good way to literally run your party into the ground. Six feet under ground, to be precise. Each choice comes with a consequence, for good and bad, large and small.

Oregon Trail Occupations

When it comes to spending money, even small decisions can spawn large consequences. Similarly, many small mistakes can easily end up equaling the magnitude of a great one. Either way, the piper will be paid. Anyone who’s had to do with very little knows how the value of $20.00 and the importance of using it wisely. For example, $20.00 spent on a movie last week can mean not having enough money for gas this week. The money scrambled for gas this week may have been meant for food next week. And so it goes. One small blunder can snowball quickly. Roll too many snowballs down the hill, and they can become an avalanche.

3. Smart vs. Fun

In Oregon Trial, one of the most interactive, and thus fun, areas of the game was hunting. Negative environmental/ethical implications aside, it sure was fun to get the gun and blast away at the wildlife. Unfortunately, bullets cost money. In addition, the food derived from hunting easily spoiled and only a small amount could be collected per hunting trip. It was easy to spend a fortune on bullets while getting a pittance of food in return. However, it sure was more fun than buying it.

Oregon Trail Hunting

Put simply, the player is exchanging useful resources for entertainment. It’s easy to see how this principle applies to personal finance and budgeting. One of the hardest things about managing your personal funds is resisting the temptation to spend it.

The hardest part about this is that spending money is much more fun than saving it, and getting what that money pays for is even more enjoyable. It’s a bad habit which replicates itself, and is one of the fastest methods for an average person to spend in the worst way. Sacrificing money which can’t be spared for personal entertainment which doesn’t last is a poor trade indeed. This is not an invitation to become like Scrooge. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a little fun. After all, this blog belongs to Big Fish, a highly successful casual games business. Having money and not using it to enjoy life it is like ordering a cheeseburger and asking for a hold on the cheese.

The key point to understand is that it’s important to maintain focus and keep a balance between fun and the necessities of life.

4. Prepare for the unexpected

Unexpected events litter the trail and can potentially derail your best laid plans. Wagon wheels would fall off, snakes would bite passengers, and a litany of other random setbacks impeded progress.  Fixing things would always cost time or money, often both at the same time.

Life is very much the same. Sometimes undeserved bad things just happen. The truth is that, despite what we’d like to believe, no one is really in control of their life. Car accidents surprise us, we get sick, our bosses cut us loose – but the wheel of life keeps turning. You’ll never be able to predict what life is going to yank the rug out, but what you can do is financially plan for a softer fall onto your backside. Even a small cushion is better than none at all. Savings accounts exist for a reason, and it’s always smart to have something in there for shielding against the random events life tosses at you.

Oregon Trail Snake Bitten!

Although no one expects you to stock up on Wagon Tongues, it’s always smart to use the same principle and give yourself a little insurance. The old western pioneers did their best to be ready for anything, and it’s certainly something we can take to heart as well.

Games teach us all kinds of lessons, even unintentional ones. The Oregon Trail was originally designed for introducing the hardships of the American frontier, but the lessons in this game go beyond historical narrative. We are no longer trundling across the country in covered wagons, but the stakes in life are still high. Managing your finances can be the difference between dreaming of the life you want and achieving it. Manage your resources wisely, and someday you too may find your own Willamette Valley!

Written by

Jacob works at Big Fish Games out of Seattle. He loves to laugh, enjoy good food (all food except Avacados), and play competitive games of all sorts. When not gaming, he practices martial arts and has recently picked up snowboarding and dancing, with very mixed results. He loves a good challenge! Feel free to get in touch with him on Twitter! or Google+

Leave a Reply