Number Munchers, Oregon Trail, and Grade School Computer Lab

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(If you’re a new reader who was directed here by the Stranger Things article, welcome! If you’re a regular reader, thanks so much for returning! Also, happy birthday to my wife, Amy! Check out her recent review of The Shadow. -Ed.)

Considering what computers and the Internet mean to everyday life now, my introduction to educational computer games at school now seems ridiculously quaint. All things considered, I think we’d be better off if at the very least all social media was deleted and replaced with Number Munchers, Oregon Trail, and Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? 

I don’t remember the exact grade when we began taking computer classes, but it was probably either third or fourth grade. Class consisted of going in, playing whatever game was loaded up, and leaving. Most classes were Number Munchers or Oregon Trail, with occasional Carmen Sandiego sessions. 


Number Munchers was the first in a series of “Munchers” titles released by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium in the late 1980s. We played it to supplement our math classes. In the game, the player controls a Number Muncher, moving it from space to space on a grid and eating the numbers that correspond to whatever clue is given for that level, depending on the type of mathematical function the player is studying (eg. multiples of 3). Once the player has collected all of the corresponding numbers that level is cleared and the player advances to the next one. Characters known as Troggles appear as well, changing the numbers on the board and eating the Number Muncher if they cross paths, like the ghosts in Pac-Man. As the player progresses in levels, the number of Troggles on a board increases. 

Isn’t that always the way?

The other game we spent a lot of time playing was Oregon Trail. It almost seems unnecessary to explain the concept of Oregon Trail since it’s one of the most referenced pieces of pop culture from the 1980s, so I will keep it short. The player must lead a wagon train from Missouri to Oregon, keeping as many people possible alive on the journey. The player wins by completing the journey. That’s about it. The first edition of Oregon Trail was released in 1971. Like Number Munchers, it was produced by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium. The purpose of the game was to educate children about pioneer life. I suppose it sort of did that in the broadest possible terms, but overall I don’t think Oregon Trail was particularly useful as a teaching tool. There wasn’t really a right way to play the game. Even if the player followed all of the recommendations for provisions, there was still a possibility that members of the wagon train would randomly fall ill and die or drown while fording a river. If the thesis was, “life is random and meaningless and you can die at any time even if you’re following the rules” then they nailed it, but I don’t know that’s information specific to pioneer life. Basically I think that Oregon Trail is overhyped, and if it didn’t feature the word dysentery it wouldn’t be nearly as popular or remembered as it is.


The best game of the three, and the one that we spent the least amount of time playing was Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? World, the first of many versions of the game, was released in 1985 by Broderbund. It was followed by Where in the USA…, Where in Europe…, Where in Time… and others. The basic premise of the game was that Carmen Sandiego and her gang were stealing items around the globe. Players would have to track them down by asking questions of witnesses and gathering clues that led to the next destination, as well as putting together arrest warrants. Originally designed as a text adventure game, it quickly gained use as a method of teaching geography, which the company leaned into hard pretty quickly. It spawned other forms of media, including a truly excellent game show on PBS and a semi-decent cartoon released in 1994. Carmen Sandiego was the best of the three games we played because it wasn’t simple and plotless like Number Munchers and didn’t rely on random chance like Oregon Trail. It required reasoning, and when you were a kid learning geography was fun as hell, plus a lot of us already loved the game show.

If any readers never played these games, or haven’t in awhile and would like to try again, it’s pretty simple to find versions of all of them online (I stopped writing this to play Number Munchers for a bit). It’s crazy to think that this was basically all of my exposure to computers until 1995 or so when we started using them in high school, and now the Internet is a trash fire that can never be extinguished and it’s slowly eating away at our insides. Thanks for reading! 

Which games did you play in computer lab? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.


One comment

  1. Number Munchers! I was explaining this game to a friend recently and couldn’t for the life of me remember the name.

    My class had one computer, and if a student finished their assignment early, then they’d get to play Number Munchers as a “reward”.


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