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A Pioneer Story: How MECC Blazed New Trails

by Joe Juba on Apr 07, 2017 at 11:15 AM

Today, education and technology go hand in hand. Students write pa pers on laptops, use the internet for research, and supplement tra ditional lectures with interactive learning tools. Modern schools are filled with computer-savvy teachers and students who make this integration possible, but that foundation didn’t form automatically.

Decades ago, as computing migrated from research labs and universities and into the mainstream, one company in Minnesota was instrumental in bringing technology into classrooms. Thanks to its focused mission and talented staff, the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) used exceptional software like The Oregon Trail to engage and educate a generation of students – and establish an unforgettable legacy.

Pioneering Days
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, before the advent of personal computers, people didn’t have ready access to computing technology. A time-sharing system allowed organizations (and individuals) to remotely connect to computers via telecommunication, using the power of the technology more efficiently and opening it up to a broader audience. This access helped computers proliferate into businesses, and many in the computing industry saw schools as the next point of expansion. “That outlook seeped into the Minnesota legislature,” says Don Rawitsch, former MECC employee and co-creator of The Oregon Trail. “After a couple years of planning, the state was prepared to set up its own public agency that would assist schools in starting to offer computing activities. So they established MECC as a publicly funded organization.”

MECC was originally conceived in 1973 to coordinate and produce software for the time-sharing system in Minnesota schools, both for instruction and administration. Because the state funded MECC at this point in its history, profitability and popularity were not the driving forces of its mission. The company’s primary focus was on education, and this fact is key to understanding what made MECC so special.

Most of MECC’s software was created by small teams including roles like instructional designer (content specialist), artist, and programmer. “All the instructional designers had to be educators,” says Wayne Studer, who once held that position in the company. “We were all former teachers…That background in classroom education was important.” Ultimately, the software MECC offered was designed by teachers, and the programs were viewed as learning tools, not games.

That fact undoubtedly escaped many delighted students who were all too happy to take a break from traditional lessons – even if the programs were still largely academic. “In the beginning, everyone just did programming instruction or very simple drill-and-practice,” says Ken Brumbaugh, one of MECC’s former CEOs. “There weren’t many simulations or games.” However, as time went on, MECC’s mainframe library filled out with a wide variety of programs, including one legendary historical simulation.

The Oregon Trail was added to MECC’s library in 1974, and through updates over the years, became a key component of the organization’s identity and strategy. “The thing I think was important with Oregon Trail was that we didn’t just create something that the student played as a detached entity, like a spelling quiz,” Rawitsch says. “We created an experience where the student became part of the story, and that was a great motivator.”

Students outside of Minnesota would eventually get access to The Oregon Trail and other exceptional titles in MECC’s catalog, but that didn’t happen until another drastic shift in the computing landscape.

Next: MECC's role changes as computers become more accessible.

Rise of Personal Computers
The proliferation of MECC software to an even broader audience became possible when computers evolved from large central mainframes to smaller, more affordable models. In the late ‘70s, people in the computing industry saw this new direction on the horizon, and MECC was forward-thinking in its preparation.

The Apple Story

How did Apple become the official computer of MECC? Ken Brumbaugh was involved in the process, and he explains the unlikely series of events that landed the underdog Apple a deal that would change its trajectory forever. “Apple accidentally became the microcomputer of choice,” he says. “We put the bids out, and the day they were due, we went to the state procurement office to meet the director of procurement. All of a sudden, we get a call from our main office, saying, ‘I have this gentleman here from Team Electronics (which had an agreement to sell Apple). He has a bid, and he wants to know what to do with it.’ I remember saying something like, ‘Well, he has 17 minutes to get it down here before we have to give them to the state.’ He came hopping in, sweating profusely. He said, ‘I parked my car up against the building,’ and threw the bid down on the counter with 73 seconds to go. If that wouldn’t have happened, there would have been no Apple in education. Period.”

“It became clear to us that there was a new thing coming, and that we had better be prepared,” Rawitsch says. “Schools were going to be attracted to the fact that these personal computers could be purchased for, say, $1,000 apiece, and that would be a very economical way to serve more and more students.”

At this point, companies like Radio Shack, Commodore, and Apple began manufacturing their own computers. To avoid having a state full of different computer models with different specifications, MECC settled on a single official model to support. This move would make software easier to develop, but would also make instruction and training easier statewide.

After a dramatic last-minute entry (see sidebar), Apple won the bid to become MECC’s computer of choice. The decision is ultimately the cause for the ubiquitous Apple IIs found in computer labs throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s. “MECC was fundamental in helping Apple get a foothold in the microcomputing industry, especially in education,” Studer says. “MECC and Apple had a very strong alliance for many years, and we were very proud of the role we played in the early success of Apple.”

Now even more students had access to MECC’s educational software, and the games were becoming so popular that schools outside of Minnesota wanted in on the action. To address the demand, MECC implemented site licensing, which was essentially a subscription service. For an annual fee, schools could buy the right to receive (and copy) MECC’s suite of programs, which dramatically widened the organization’s reach.

“When we started the site licensing software, every school district in the country wanted a part of it,” Brumbaugh says. “We were almost giving it away…one of the studies said we had 46 percent of the market, but we only had 5 percent of the revenue. So, the site licensing was really a good deal – maybe too good of a deal.”

Next: Memorable software and some corporate changes.

Change and Consistency
Even though site licensing was a bargain, the widespread interest meant a new level of success, and the ability for MECC to make its own money. “Our job was to serve education,” Brumbaugh says. “We happened to make money… We had 5,000 school districts paying us, so I said, ‘I don’t need your state money,’ but we still had that state control.” The influx of revenue from software sales meant MECC could sustain itself. Minnesota stopped contributing funds, and in 1984, MECC took a step toward independence by becoming a corporation wholly owned by the state – now officially called the Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation.

Despite the corporate changes, MECC did not stray from its goal to create quality educational programs. The company ensured that each new product still had learning at its core. “In some cases, you can think of what we created as games,” Studer says. “But the game element of it was the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. The game was a way to convey the learning.” With the reach of MECC’s software expanding around the world, the scope of its offerings also grew.

Classic titles like The Oregon Trail, Number Munchers, Odell Lake, and Lemonade Stand all filled different roles in the company’s portfolio. But the company needed even more to satisfy demand and justify the annual fee to its members. “MECC’s plan was to come out with a new set of products every year,” Rawitsch says. “So there had to be some strategic planning done to determine what those should be to make sure the entire collection was balanced for all kinds of teachers.”

“We had weekly meetings where we’d sit and toss ideas around,” Studer says. “It was very collaborative. Even though the germ of an idea would start with one person, it would quickly become a team baby. There’d be a lot of brains and a lot of hands at work on it.”

This cooperative environment continued to produce acclaimed software, but the market had begun shifting toward home computing. The novelty of educational software was also diminished; where MECC titles were once the only easily accessible games for many students, the proliferation of PCs and home consoles gave kids more options. The traditional schools-only model wouldn’t be enough to sustain MECC in this new environment. The company needed to sell its games to consumers directly.

To make this possible, Minnesota sold MECC to a venture capital fund for $5.25 million in 1991. While this move was not necessarily the beginning of the end for MECC, it marked an important change in the company’s approach to development. The goal of creating educational software remained intact, but it was joined by a new priority: profit.

Next: The company pivots to a more consumer-facing approach.

A New Era
The new situation gave MECC a split purpose, catering to schools and consumers simultaneously. “Schools were still a big part of the business,” says Sheila Zwettler, former director of art. “But they became less of a priority because they saw consumer software explode.”

For a company that had previously been focused solely on education, this was a major change. Where once MECC had a direct line to all of its users through the schools, the company’s pivot toward retail required a new level of marketplace awareness. “Because it was consumer stuff, we had to start paying attention to what the other companies are making, what’s popular, do focus groups, that kind of stuff,” says former project director Beth Daniels.

One might think these new tactics spelled trouble, but MECC still believed in its mission to create educational software. It continued to find success and create memorable experiences for years because of the faith it placed in its staff. “There weren’t a lot of levels of decision-making,” Zwettler says. “They really empowered the teams to get the work done. That was another thing that made MECC special – the leadership didn’t micromanage.”

MECC continued to release acclaimed titles throughout the first half of the ‘90s, and the primary platform for its titles shifted from Apple II to Macintosh and machines running MS-DOS and Windows. The Amazon Trail and The Yukon Trail (spin-offs of The Oregon Trail) were well received, using a familiar formula in all-new locations. The Secret Island of Dr. Quandary was another memorable release, presenting players with an array of math and logic puzzles.

The most noteworthy success during this timeframe is the 1995 release of MECC’s first million-dollar project: The Oregon Trail II. More than just an update of the original, this sequel took advantage of the powerful comput ers of the day, with more elaborate graphics and audio, a more intuitive interface, and more diverse events and opportunities for interactions. “The most exciting thing about it was, after sinking that much money into it and releasing it, it made back that million dollars in its first week,” says Studer, who took the lead designing the title. “It was like printing money – it sold like hotcakes. It exceeded our expectations, and we had trouble keeping up with the demand.”

MECC’s new goals didn’t seem to be dramatically affecting its quality or identity, but that was about to change. In 1995, MECC was bought by SoftKey – and this time, it was the beginning of the end.

Next: The closing days of MECC.

The Final Stretch
For a company that once dominated the educational computing industry, the waning years of MECC seem to lack the appropriate glory. It had no spectacular implosion or high-profile failure. MECC died a slow death.

Following its purchase of MECC, SoftKey also acquired other educational software companies. After buying The Learning Company (of Reader Rabbit fame) in 1996, SoftKey became The Learning Co. In 1998, the company also bought Brøderbund, which made the Carmen Sandiego games. However, despite this stable of big names in educational software, the company became entirely focused on sales, letting the learning fall to the wayside.

“The mood was changing,” Zwettler says. “People were feeling a little nervous. We all saw the changes coming; we saw the mergers and acquisitions with all the other educational companies.”

“There was a big culture change,” Daniels says. “It became a sad and stressful place to work those last few years.” Rounds of layoffs hit the company formerly known as MECC, and uncertainty hovered over the remaining employees. As its staff shrank, its output was limited to just a handful of safe titles and updates.

In 1998, Mattel agreed to buy The Learning Co., a decision widely considered one of the most disastrous acquisitions in the business world. From there, it began to wind down the Minnesota operation. “By the late ‘90s, when SoftKey was preparing us to be sold, we weren’t making anything new anymore,” Daniels says. “We were making updates of Oregon Trail. We were making updates of American Girls.”

Even that didn’t last. Though updates for some properties continued elsewhere, MECC’s Minnesota office closed in 1999.

Next: Looking back at the company's legacy and significance.

A Lasting Legacy
MECC had a rough final stretch, but that doesn’t negate the tremendous contributions the company and its staff made toward education, computing, and entertainment. “For a period of about 15 years, there was a real golden age of educational computing and educational software,” Studer says.

“If you could add entertainment to learning activities – that’s what we were trying to do,” Brumbaugh says. “We knew that if it wasn’t fun, kids are going to look someplace else. Classrooms were boring enough as it was.”

When talking about MECC, former employees don’t dwell on the darkness near the end. Instead, they focus on the people and the enthusiasm that comes from being pioneers in unfamiliar territory. “I think there was something about the passion of the team and the commitment to make really good products,” Zwettler says. “I think that shows through in those memories. I think we made some good products, and that made an impact…I love being attached to MECC and I love talking about it.”

“I would’ve paid them to let me work there, rather than the other way around,” Rawitsch says. “I don’t think I ever worked with a better group of people than the one I fell in with at age 24. They were people I looked up to, they accepted me for what I could do, and we bent over backwards to help each other.”

Hearing stories is reassuring for anyone who was affected by MECC’s work over the years, because that work was clearly driven by passion and a commitment to education. MECC software wasn’t made out of a cynical desire to exploit trends or pacify students. It was created by smart and creative individuals who had fun while helping kids learn.

“What I really hope people remember about MECC is that we were an idealistic attempt to do something new,” Studer says. “To do something important for students and learning. To carve out a new industry. MECC really was the founding house of educational computing at the school level.”

Next: We highlight six of the most noteworthy games in MECC's catalogue.

Over its long history, MECC created countless memorable titles that helped students in schools around the world. While we won’t comprehensively run through MECC’s impressive catalog, we’ve selected the following titles as the most famous (or infamous) of the company’s offerings.

The Oregon Trail
This classic title tasked players with making the long trek from Missouri to Oregon, encountering various hardships and obstacles along the way. Though it received updates, spin-offs, and a full sequel, the original version of The Oregon Trail was only available to a small sampling of Minnesota students…though it eventually would become MECC’s signature product.

In 1971, the three creators of The Oregon Trail – Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger – were student teachers in the Twin Cities. As part of his responsibilities, Rawitsch needed to devise a lesson about the historic wagon route. He tells us how that task led to the creation of a famous piece of educational software:

“I was thinking about how we were going to make the study of the westward movement interesting to kids; I thought I was going to invent a board game. When I talked to my colleagues about my ideas, they said, ‘Making a game of it would be great. But you really ought to put it on the computer!’ A phrase that meant nothing to me.

“We had about two weeks, and we put together a first version of The Oregon Trail that was run off a time-share system, and proved to be pretty popular in our classrooms for a week or so. We then enter a dark period; we were done with our teaching in the schools, and we were finishing up our college senior year, and we really had no place to run this game. After we left college, we took various jobs, and didn’t have access to a computer. So, in 1974 when I joined MECC and I could see that it was interested in beefing up its collection of programs for schools, I suggested that I had a program that I could enter into the MECC computer system. One weekend, I typed in 800 lines of code from a print-out that we had saved, and that made the Oregon Trail available to Minnesota schools.”

Later updates to the game added graphics and more historical information to make the simulation more accurate. These versions were distributed around the world via MECC’s site-licensing model, and The Oregon Trail became a phenomenon in schools. Rawitsch recently gave a talk at GDC 2017 going into greater detail about the history and design of this landmark title.

The Oregon Trail II
This successful sequel expands and improves on MECC’s most famous product. The process of rationing supplies, crossing rivers, and visiting outposts is largely the same, keeping the educational core. Technological improvements make the graphics better and the interface easier to navigate, and the simulation is deeper since the game can track more elements.

Odell Lake
You would be hard-pressed to name a fish simulator more popular than Odell Lake. Based on data from a real lake in Oregon, this title taught students about an underwater ecosystem while allowing them to decide what to eat and what to avoid as various species of fish.

Number Munchers
Though education always came first for MECC, Number Munchers was an attempt to meld the benefits of math drills with the popularity of Pac-Man. Players controlled a green “Muncher” that moved around a grid and ate all available answers to prompts like “Multiples of 4.”

Lemonade Stand
This simulation put students in charge of managing a small business. It required you to weigh a variety of costs and benefits (and do some math), all while balancing factors like your production, advertising, and even the weather to maximize your sales.

Putting players in the role of an escaping slave in the South, Freedom is MECC’s most controversial title. Though it was made with good intentions, some students and teachers found the depictions stereotypical and insensitive. Under threats of lawsuits, MECC discontinued production of Freedom and asked school districts to destroy the remaining copies.

(This article originally ran in Game Informer issue #288)