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“You Have Died of Dysentery” is a video game reference to a message commonly encountered in Oregon Trail, an educational computer game that was developed and distributed through public schools in the 1980s and 1990s. Due to the frequent appearance of the quote during gameplay, the phrase has since become a classic catchphrase used by old school video game fans on the web.
The Oregon Trail is a resource-management game developed in 1971 in Minnesota by student teachers at Carleton College. The game is based on the eponymous journey taken by pioneers westward through the early days of American history, which was marked by dangerous, time-intensive, and often unpredictable encounters along the way. In the game, a number of setbacks can befall the players, including diseases such as cholera and dysentery. One of the more common stock explanations for a character’s death was death by dysentery, giving the phrase “You Have Died of Dysentery” a sense of permanence:
Both the Apple II version and a sequel game were first released in 1978. A streamlined version called Oregon was released in the following year as part of an educational game package. The success of the 1979 release also led to its re-release in 1985 with improved graphics. The original Apple II version of the game is available online for free play.
Though knowledge of the phrase initially spread from the game to the players prior to the web, the phrase has been typically used as a reference to the game in validating one’s “old school” credit or simply to share memories of nostalgia from childhood. In March 2005, BustedTees printed a shirt with the phrase as a tribute to the game, which was covered by the internet culture blog BoingBoing on March 31st, 2005.
In late February 2009, the band Fall Out Boy released “Fall Out Boy Trail,” which combines Oregon Trail with Guitar Hero to promote their album “Folie A Deux.” In July 2009, YouTuber Mega64 created a video on Oregon Trail in which one of the characters, Rocko, dies of dysentery:
Dysentery would be very similar to a stomach virus. It can be caused by a bacterial or viral infection, as well as a parasitic infestation, often spread by contaminated food or water. It is treated by staying hydrated, either orally or intravenously, or with antibiotics. When left untreated, it can lead to dehydration, blood poisoning, and ultimately, death.
Because Oregon Trail is such an old and classic game, searches for the game and its related terms don’t reflect the beginning of the spread, but just searches post 2004. What’s interesting to note is that the search trend is equally as strong as a number of other classic video game catch phrases; all of which are used within the context of 80’s retro game nostalgia.