Home > Lesson plan, Practical advice, Teacher examples > Open Teacher Letter – When Rivers Were Trails

Open Teacher Letter – When Rivers Were Trails

I received this email the other day asking about using When Rivers Were Trails in a 7th grade Social Studies Class in Minnesota. The game is available for free and runs on Windows and Mac. As the developers note on the itch.io page, https://indianlandtenure.itch.io/when-rivers-were-trails, “When Rivers Were Trails is a 2D point-and-click adventure game in which Oregon Trail meets Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. An Anishinaabeg in the 1890’s is displaced from their traditional territory in Minnesota and heads west to California due to the impact of allotment acts on Indigenous communities, facing Indian Agents, meeting people from different nations, and hunting, fishing, and canoeing along the way as they balance their wellbeing.” It is a terrific game for students studying US and Native American history and present at any grade level including college. The basic lesson guidelines will work for any age/grade level; just adjust the historical research part with appropriate readings. Here is my response to the letter, with a bit of editing and expansion. For more information, see my earlier post on this game

Email: Hello, I was hoping you could help me to figure out how to use When Rivers Were Trails with my students in an online format.  Would each student have to download the game onto their computer? Or is there a better way to do it?   We are currently doing distance learning using Schoology and Zoom as our platforms.  Any advice or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Hi ____________; Nice to hear from you; I hope you are healthy and safe. I’m so glad you asked about WRWT! It’s a neat game, with the capacity to be deep and moving. When I get good questions like this these days, I like to post my answer on my site, gamingthepast.net. I just like to encourage colleague teachers to ask questions and get some interactive history into their curricula. Please let me know if there are more detail-oriented questions that I can answer, and I’ll do my best!

So, basically I’m going to write about how I would teach with it and include some options. Let’s start with logistical considerations. WRWT is available for free on itch.iohttps://indianlandtenure.itch.io/when-rivers-were-trails and comes in PC and MacOs versions. The game is beautiful in its still art and text stories, but not graphically intensive, so you essentially have two logistical options with asynchronous and synchronous possibilities. You can a) have a synchronized lesson where you play and students watch via a Zoom screenshare (or Teams or Skype, anything that has a screen-share option should work). You can b) be synchronized through Zoom and have students play the game while still connected (the game runs in a window so it should not be difficult for students to have the game up, once installed, and have Zoom running. Or you can have c) asynchronous play where the students explore the game. 

When a game like this is freely available, very easy to learn to play, and able to run on most Windows / Mac systems, it seems a shame not to let students directly play and experience the game because games are meant to be played. But please remember that if plans go awry or any difficulties arise you can always run the game and screenshare from your computer and synchronously talk to your students. They can watch and play vicariously by telling you (by voting or picking one student at a time to choose) the choices they want the player character to makes so that they can experience the game as played more than just reading about it. So running the game on your computer and having kids connected via Zoom and screenshare is the backup plan, because it requires the most modest technological resources and technical skills from your students.

Ideally though for a game like this, having the students install and play on their own computers would be even better. So let’s assume for a moment you go with this option. That means the kids will need to install the game on their systems.  I’ve learned over the years that it’s generally not effective to expect to play on the same day students were instructed to install the game, because if anyone has difficulty installing or forgets to do the installation homework, things can get bogged down. So I tend to have students install the software at least one class meeting before the one on which we’ll actually use the game. This will allow problem-solving with students having technical difficulties and the chance to remind students to install who may have forgotten. Probably should plan on having some students benefit from being walked through the installation process.
It’s a pretty easy install, but it’s always good to have a backup plan. If some students are unable to install it and their parents and your tech guru cannot help, you could always combine approaches. Those who install the game successfully play on their own, those who can’t, play with you by giving you suggestions as you control the player-character of the game on your computer and screenshare.

While waiting for the game to be installed (for example installing the game is assigned for a Wednesday and they will play on Thursday), they can do some preparatory work on the history behind WRWT. Readability is, of course, something to be aware of and you know your students best when it comes to this. Khan Academy has a reasonable overview of the Dawes Act. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/the-gilded-age/american-west/a/the-dawes-act. This is outside my historical expertise and teaching areas (and as  Minnesotan teacher I’m guessing you know a lot more about this than I) but I gather the Dawes Act  is the general act of allotment and displacement; while the Nelson Act is the Minnesota specific allotment Act in WRWT. (note: for higher level readers I would include the History page of the Indian Land Tenure Foundation)

I would begin the game lesson by synchronizing and explaining to everyone how the game works and what the game is about. The blurb on Itch.io is a good starting point. “When Rivers Were Trails is a 2D point-and-click adventure game in which Oregon Trail meets Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. An Anishinaabeg in the 1890’s is displaced from their traditional territory in Minnesota and heads west to California due to the impact of allotment acts on Indigenous communities, facing Indian Agents, meeting people from different nations, and hunting, fishing, and canoeing along the way as they balance their wellbeing.”

Then I would discuss with them a little their reading of the Dawes Act overview (or the textbook reading assigned, whatever historical material they will read first). Then I would give them their assignment. Basically, because the game is not hard to learn to play as far as video games go, I would assign them say 20-30 minutes of play time and then a short reflection-writing assignment. If you’re going to do a deep dive on this game they could have more than one 20-30 minute play session followed by a short reflection-writing assignment. The game probably takes an hour or two to complete fully. (BTW if you wanted to do a really deep dive, browser/DosBox version of Oregon Trail is playable at the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/msdos_Oregon_Trail_The_1990 Since WRWT is “inspired” by Oregon Trail you could do both games in a longer period.)

Then get together for a synchronized debrief on the game. The reflection assignments and the debrief are the critical parts for learning. Though they are not as flashy or exciting as gameplay, reflection and processing are so important! Here are some things you might ask about for their reflections and their debrief (this is basically simplified versions of my Historical Problem Space framework for analyzing video games. (If you’re interested, I go through these here in a more bloglike fashion with some talk about classroom applications http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-2/historical-simulations-as-problem-spaces-by-jeremiah-mccall/ and here in more academic detail:   http://gamestudies.org/2003/articles/mccall)

  • Who is the player character? What are their goals and why do they have these goals? (It’s really worth pointing out that even if the player character “completely succeeds” on their journey, they are still displaced from their homes.)
  • What is the gameworld for the player character? Where are they supposed to be located in time and place?
  • What sorts of obstacles and help does the player character meet during their travels? How do these obstacles block and helpful people help.
  • How are the characters the player character meets in the game world affected by the Nelson Act and General Allotment?
  • What sorts of decisions does the player character get to make?

Having students write journal entries as the main character is also a pretty cool activity for this sort of game.

I think it’s fantastic that you’re going to try this. I’m not sure if I answered all your questions, so please let me know and I will be happy to do my best. I will offer as much support as I can to help this work for you. And again, even you playing and students offering input would be a meaningful game experience, and in a short and more manageable chunk of time.

Best of luck and don’t hesitate to reach out. We teachers in pandemic have to stick together!Stay safe and healthy!

Very Best,


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  1. November 22, 2020 at 10:14 pm

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