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Learning Family History With The 1918 Pandemic Trail Game

Please Note: Sometimes we have bad luck. Shortly after the publication of this article the CDC pulled this game from their website. It is regrettably no longer available.


If you grew up in the 1990s or later or had a child or grandchild during this time you may be familiar with the educational video game, The Oregon Trail. In this game you follow the Oregon Trail and experience what pioneers faced in their quest to go west. You begin in  Independence, Missouri and travel the trail while facing various obstacles along the way including hunger, accidents, wagon failures, and death.[1] Anyone who has played is familiar with certain phrases uttered in the game such as  “you have died of dysentery,” one of the fates that can befall a player.

Pandemic start

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has taken a cue from the popular 1980s game and designed their own game that tells the story of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. Simply called,  The 1918 Pandemic Trail Game, players take a walk through the streets of Philadelphia in September 1918 as the flu has broken out infecting and even killing soldiers at nearby Fort Dix.

Why does the game focus on Philadelphia? Philadelphia was especially hard hit by the flu due to an influx of soldiers and sailors, overcrowding, and a lack of medical personnel. On top of that, crowds watching the Liberty Loan parade ensured that the flu spread rapidly and devastated the city of two million. Philadelphia would see half a million cases of the flu and 16,000 deaths. 12,000 of these deaths were over a 5 week period. [2]

Pandemic PA

Pancdemic characters

As you begin the 1918 Pandemic Trail Game, you choose to play as one of three characters, a letter carrier, a farmer, or a soldier and your mission is to go about your character's day-to-day life making choices that may put you at risk for the flu.

Pandemic mission

Just like The Oregon Trail, initially this game seems like it should be easy. After all, you just have to get through a few scenarios without your character catching the flu.  But there are hazards that are far removed from our modern everyday lives. I played the game as a letter carrier thinking that although my character would be out in public I could avoid contact infected community members. But, of course I was wrong. One obstacle was that unlike today, mailboxes were not mandatory in 1918 which meant my character was forced many times to interact with coughing community members.

I played other scenarios with one of my sons including the soldier character who experiences everything from digging graves for those lost to the flu to going to the parade. Avoiding groups was one sure way to stay safe from the flu.

Pandemic mail facts

Pandmic wave

Not surprising to me, because I didn’t avoid that coughing family on my mail route, I contracted the flu (and perhaps died since there is the RIP on the tombstone next to the news of my infection). Let’s just say I’m very grateful for the availability of the flu shot in today's world since I have had the flu before and it wasn’t a lot of fun. Today we take for granted vaccines and preventative measures, but our ancestors weren’t so lucky. The 1918 flu pandemic was frightening because it did the opposite of who the flu typically affects - younger, healthier people. Otherwise healthy people contracted and died of the flu. 

Pandemic RIP


Besides the graphics, this game is definitely old school. It doesn’t currently work on mobile devices and you use your computer’s space bar and enter key to move forward in the game. But technology aside, the history and the information incorporated in this game provides an important message about how the flu affected our ancestors and how we can avoid it today.

So why should family historians care about this game? This is one way you can help tell the story of how the pandemic affected your ancestors. Consider learning more about your ancestor in the year 1918 and then write about it. Use documents and images to help illustrate the facts. Invite family members to play this CDC game and then tell them how this same flu affected your family. It’s a great way to introduce this time period to your family and will make the story of their ancestors even more poignant and interesting.

You can learn more about the 1918 flu pandemic  from the CDC's 1918 Commemoration web page including  a history, a timeline, and stories about those working on understanding the 1918 pandemic better.

Pandemic stats


[1] “The Oregon Trail  (1985 video game),” Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Oregon_Trail_(1985_video_game): accessed 20 December 2018).

[2] "Influenza (“Spanish Flu” Pandemic, 1918-19)," The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia (https://philadelphiaencyclopedia.org/archive/influenza-spanish-flu-pandemic-1918-19/: accessed 20 December 2018). 


Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.



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Love this!

Interesting. My great uncle died in Fort Dix during basic training from the flu. Thanks for posting this!

This would make an excellent training tool in schools.

I clicked on the link to play the game only to discover it's now closed. Too bad!

Hi Gena:

Unfortunately, the CDC site states the 1918 Pandemic Trail Game ended in 2018. It would be nice if they reactivate the game as it sounds like a fun way for children and adults to learn about the pandemic.

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