I downloaded a Mac OS 8 emulator a few weeks ago—not just because it looked cool, but because I had a serious hankering for some classic Oregon Trail. The app itself is pretty neat. It’s made by the same Slack developer, Felix Rieseberg, who also made a Windows 95 emulator. It’s not a fully functioning Mac OS 8 machine, but it has a few goodies, like Duke Nukem 3D, Civilization II, and Dungeons & Dragons. But it was Oregon Trail I was after.
I had planned on tossing some of my fellow Gizmodo tech reporters in my wagon, until someone suggested use something more abstract. Given the on-going antitrust hearings against Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook, and this month’s drama with Epic, Apple, and Google, I’m sure you can imagine what place my brain immediately went to next.
Talk about meta-symbolism: myself, a consumer but also a merchant, riding alongside four tech giants on a 2,170-mile journey in a game played on an emulated Mac on my Windows PC, which I am now using to write this blog in the Chrome browser. It really puts into perspective how much direct and indirect involvement these companies have in our daily lives, doesn’t it?
What I was hoping would be a cathartic, nostalgic journey turned into a grim representation of how a lack of legal oversight and accountability has granted these tech giants metaphorical immortality. The whole appeal of Oregon Trail, despite the goal of the game, is not if you can survive, but finding out when and how you die. And while I didn’t die, nor even suffered as much as a scratch on my big toe, every single tech giant suffered broken limbs, exhaustion, typhoid fever, cholera, snake bites, and dysentery only to heal in time for all us to reach Willamette Valley. What the fuck?
Every single time, it went from, “Amazon is suffering from exhaustion,” or “Google has cholera,” to, “All better now!” It was really infuriating. I wanted to have a good chuckle at Facebook dying from dysentery. No. It got knocked down, but it got up again. Nothing could ever keep it down.
Maybe it was my choices that saved us all. I didn’t want to die, so instead of fording rivers I floated over them. I started our journey in April. I spent all $1,200 allotted to the five of us on bullets, clothing, and oxen. I hunted many buffalo and deer to replenish our food supply. I lowered our food rations when needed. I slowed down our pace when needed. And we all somehow survived a winter with zero clothing after a thief stole it all in the middle of the night. No one died of hypothermia even though I guess we were wandering around butt-naked?
But the people I stopped to talk to along the way...man, it was depressing in how it seemed to mimic the current state of things. Every little kid I encountered talked about how a family member was sick, but they were going to get back on the trail soon once they were better. (Sorry, kid. This is 1848. They’re gonna die.) I spoke with a member of the Sioux Tribe who told me all he wanted was for the “white men to leave him alone.” The fact that I was traveling with Apple, Amazon, and Facebook made me feel really bad.
But this was the first time I’ve ever played Oregon Trail without a single person dying, and maybe this was an omen of what’s to come from the eventual DOJ ruling. These companies are going to still exist after this, whatever changes will or won’t be legally mandated. The ecosystems they have created are so tightly intertwined with our daily lives that it seems impossible to substantively change that—but it would be nice for Apple and Google to not take so much commission from small app developers. It would be nice for Facebook to be competent at handling civil rights matters. It’d be nice for Amazon to give a shit about their workers.
This isn’t anything like the Microsoft antitrust case of 1998 (which the U.S. won, by the way), but the outcome of that saw a surge in innovation and invention. Technology seemed to grow even more rapidly than it did before, giving way to Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google to become the tech giants they are today. But there’s been little oversight of them since. Like in my Oregon Trail game, they’ll still be fine, but the people on the trail? The consumers and developers that those companies leave behind? Someone needs to stand up for them.