Trace Effects: A Game for Language Learning and Teaching

Welcome to another edition of the TESOL Games and Learning Blog! I hope many of you were able to attend TESOL’s Virtual Convention last month. During the Convention, TESOL President Deborah Healey delivered the fantastic keynote “Teaching With Play: Games, Game-Based Learning, and Gamification.”

This month’s post highlights a game referred to several times in Deborah’s talk: Trace Effects. Released in 2013 by the U.S. Department of State, Trace Effects is a free game developed specifically for the English language learning classroom. Deborah and I had active roles in the development of Trace Effects and have worked with students and teachers around the world on integrating the game into classroom practice.

Trace Effects centers on Trace, a time-traveler from the year 2045. Trace ventures back to the present day after accidentally triggering an experimental time machine. Trace is now tasked with completing the mission of the time machine by finding six individuals scattered across the United States and influencing their lives for the better. Each of Trace’s chapters highlights different parts of the United States and different social issues, such as the environment, science and technology, and conflict resolution.

Core Mechanics

Players use two core mechanics to complete their missions: conversations and sentence construction.

Trace can interact with nonplayable characters.


In the dialogues, Trace can interact with nonplayable characters (NPCs). Over the course of a conversation, players choose from dialogue options to move the conversation forward. Dialogue options are scored according to their level of appropriateness in the conversation. This point system gives the students clear and immediate feedback to their performance and allows them to use that feedback to try again.

Trace can combine the words show or give with sandwich.

Sentence Construction

The second mechanic players can utilize is the sentence construction mechanic. Over the course of the game, players can collect verbs and objects scattered across the level and combine them to make sentences.

For example, in Chapter 1, Trace can combine the words show or give with sandwich.

NPCs will respond differently to each sentence construction, providing feedback to students on their performance.

Other Benefits

When players complete a chapter, they are rewarded with a comic book version of the chapter and can compare their play through with what is presented in the comic book version of the chapter.

When players complete a chapter, they are rewarded with a comic book version of the chapter.

Trace Effects was designed for language learners to practice and improve their English but is also a useful tool for introducing teachers to video games for learning. The game comes with a robust Teacher’s Manual that can guide educators through the game and provide classroom activities that can be used before or after segments of gameplay.

Finally, learning to work with Trace Effects in the classroom can equip educators with many of the skills and techniques they need to meet the TESOL Technology Standards. The game also presents an opportunity for teachers who are new to games to improve their games literacy by practicing how to play and interact with games in a low-stake, inviting format.

You can find more about Trace Effects at Deborah Healey’s website.

Until next month, play more games!

About Jeff Kuhn

Jeff Kuhn is the director of esports at Ohio University. He frequently delivers talks and keynote addresses on games and learning, game design, and the need for games literacy in educators. He is one of the founding moderators of the Electronic Village Online’s Minecraft MOOC, a community of practice for teachers learning to use Minecraft in the classroom. He has served on the TESOL CALL-IS steering committee, as the Gaming Special Interest Group chair for CALICO, and in the U.S. Department of State’s English Language Specialist program. His research interests include game-based learning, second language writing, and computer-assisted language learning.
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Trace Effects: A Game for Language Learning and Teaching

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