Volcanoes, the Oregon Trail of Volcanology

Learning should be fun, an old saying that certainly got its revival with the advent of computers in schools in the ’70s and ’80s. The Computer quickly became an integrated tool, that not only helped to create learning environments, that were either too difficult, dangerous, or expensive to recreate by other means but just as importantly, as a tool delivering a fun and engaging learning experience.

In December of 1971, the first version of what would become known as The Oregon Trail debuted in a classroom in Minnesota. Student-teacher Don Rawitsch with help from a few friends and colleagues created a small but intricate program to teach his students about the pioneer life on the wagon route and emigrant trail, that hundreds of thousands of settlers, farmers, miners, ranchers, and business owners all traveled in the mid 19th century. The Oregon Trail spanned more than 2000 miles and connected the Missouri River in the Midwest to the valleys of Oregon in the Pacific North West.
Rawitsch programmed the educational game in BASIC on the school’s teletype terminals connected to the school system’s HP 2100 time-sharing minicomputer. While the experience was solely text-based, with paper-print output, his 8th-grade students loved it. The positive response led Rawitsch to make it available to all users of the minicomputer time-sharing network owned by Minneapolis Public Schools

In 1974, the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, MECC, a state-funded organization that developed educational software for classrooms, hired Rawitsch. Rawitsch modified parts of the original game to more accurately reflect the history and made the new version available to all the schools on the organization’s time-sharing network in 1975. The game became one of the network’s most popular programs, played by thousands of people each month.
In 1978, MECC would play an instrumental part in encouraging schools to adopt the newly released and capable Apple II microcomputer. With the ability to produce graphics and by being innovative and user-friendly the computer quickly became an integrated part of learning with a myriad of different educational software and game titles covering nearly every thinkable subject, including Volcanology.

In the ’60s new revolutionary thinking on plate tectonics led scientists to unravel the mysterious geological processes tied to mountain building, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes. Leaders at the University of Oregon realized that being on the Pacific Ring of Fire, they had a natural laboratory right at their doorstep. In 1965, university president Arthur Fleming along with administrators in the geology department formed the Center for Volcanology and recruited Alexander McBirney from Scripps Institute of Oceanography, to lead it. McBirney brought along two colleagues, one being geochemist Gordon Goles. The trio established the Center for Vulcanology and would throughout the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s have numerous landmark studies published by the department’s faculty and its graduate students.

In 1980 the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in US history took place when Mount St. Helen’s in the Cascade Range erupted after a series of earthquakes. The disastrous eruption released 24 megatons of thermal energy, equivalent to 1.600 Hiroshima bombs, and scattered a large-scale pyroclastic flow that flattened vegetation and buildings over a 230 square miles area and killed 57 people.
In 1981, while still being a geology and chemistry professor at the university, Gordon together with his wife Donna established Earthware Computer Services, a small software company focusing on developing and publishing educational games and software. Gordon’s knowledge in vulcanology and the increased general interest in volcanoes, after Mount St. Helen’s eruption, led Goles’ to create his first game, Volcanoes, a strategy game that allowed two to four players to study and predict the eruptions of mythical volcanoes.

The game begins in 1990, a time when volcanoes are plentiful and unstable, as volcanologists players are assigned to study one of four provinces of the fictional continent Wrangelia, named Afringham, Brigalorn, Camasport, and Derkin. At the start of a game, each player chooses between three difficulty levels and are provided with a research budget and maps to locate potential active volcanoes. The objective is to accurately predict volcanic activity, warn local inhabitants in potentially unsafe areas, and stay within a given budget. Predictions were based on various investigations performed by the players – infrared scans, seismic surveys, analysis of emitted gas, and study of rocks near the volcanoes. The included documentation helped to provide information on the history of the fictional volcanoes alongside a glossary on the scientific terminology.

The included manual, the Blue Book summarises the fictional history of Wrangelia and the volcanic activity prior to 1990, alongside an elaborate glossary

Each player was given a map of their chosen province, results of investigations could be marked here and on the printed form on the backside

A turn allowed each player to carry out several scientific investigations, at a specific cost. If your job was done well you would be awarded more research money, letters of commendation, and a higher ranking. If you were playing on easier difficulty levels your rewards would be less.

Volcanoes was programmed by Gordon in Applesoft Basic and the hi-res graphics and maps were all done by Donna and himself. A save game feature was implemented since a game easily could last for several hours.
The game was targeted at players from age 13 (7th grade) and up. And while it didn’t require any insight into volcanology and could be played and enjoyed by anyone, it was a great supplement to science teachers in middle- and high school.

Volcanoes was only released for the Apple II, it was published by Gordon and Donna’s Earthware Computer Services in 1981. Donna created the cover artwork and also helped provide in-game graphics. From my research, evidence could suggest it only sold a few hundred copies

While Volcanoes provided an excellent and interesting insight into the world of volcanology, depicting the various investigational procedures, scientific methods, and painstaking work involved in volcanic research, it was very much a niche product.
Not much information on neither Volcanoes nor Gordon Goles seems to be available today, this copy is the only one I have come across, an educated guess is that it only sold a few hundred copies. My copy is numbered 049 in the manual and 052 on the box, suggesting it could be a school copy, and content and boxes got mixed up at some point.

The Software Guild picked up Volcanoes after its original publication in 1981 and published it under its subsidiary, Softsmith Software, in the typical generic Softsmith box with a cutout showing the title. Softsmith distributed a myriad of software and game titles in the early ’80s, including Donald Brown’s fantasy role-playing adventure Sword Trust. I’ll cover The Software Guild and Softsmith in a future article, as it has its own quite interesting story.

The Software Guild published Volcanoes for the Apple II under its Softsmith label later in 1981

Gordon went on to create Star Search in 1983. Another Apple II Science title. Here the player sets out to explore the planets in a newly discovered solar system all while managing crew and supplies in order to complete the missions and return safely to base.
Unfortunately, virtually no information seems to be available on Star Search.

Gordon and Donna would separate in 1983, and while Donna would keep running Earthware without Gordon, she had no knowledge in science software and shifted focus to solely publishing games. She managed to strike a deal with Kevin Ryan, a local Eugene programmer. Ryan had just graduated from the University of Oregon with a bachelor in Computer and Information Science. Earthware published his first two games, Zoo Master and Black Belt. While it’s believed none of them sold more than a hundred copies, rendering them extremely rare today, Ryan soon joined Jeff Tunnell and Damon Slye’s Dynamix as one of the four owners and was part of the development team on Arctic Fox, the first original game for Commodore’s new Amiga computer.
Up through the ’80s and early ’90s, Ryan would work on some of the most celebrated Dynamix games – Sword of Kadash, Rise of the Dragon, Heart of China, The Adventures of Willy Beamish, and The Incredible Machine series, to name a few.
Donna and Earthware would continue to work on a number of advertised games including Megaventure, an adventure game development system. Megaventure alongside Proton Quest, a scenario developed in the software was advertised in the Jan-Feb 1986 issue of Computer Gaming World stating it would be available at some point in 1986. It’s believed that neither Megaventure nor any other of Earthware’s advertised titles ever were released – the last trademark clues of Earthware products are from 1985. Reportedly Earthware Computer Services was sold to a buyer from New York but I haven’t been able to find any more information.

Gordon would continue his work at the University of Oregon and take part in many of the milestone studies published by The Center for Vulcanology – which eventually would become the renowned Department of Earth Science. Over the course of a lifetime, Gordon had articles and books published on petrology, volcanology, geochemistry, and everything in between.
To my knowledge Volcanoes and Star Search were the only two games developed by Gordon.
Gordon Goles died on November 9, 2003, 69 years old.

After I published the article I was contacted by a fellow collector who kindly shared some interesting additional information on a limited distributed version of Volcanoes meant for educational institutions like schools, school districts, colleges, and universities. This version was sold without the box and included double up on manuals (The Blue book), floppies and maps.

A fellow collector kindly reached out to me with not only a bit more information on a release only targeting educational institutions but also provided a few picture – Thanks alot, much appreciated

Sources: InfoWorld Feb 1982, Gallery of Undiscovered Entities, USPTO Trademark & Patent Filings, Wikipedia, Computer Gaming World, University of Oregon, Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium, Various scientific writings, and school projects/assignments

2 thoughts on “Volcanoes, the Oregon Trail of Volcanology

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.