Monday, December 3, 2012

Trace Effects: Gaming meets Pedagogy for ESOL

In thinking about ways to make learning more engaging for our students, I've been developing activities based on work on gamification by Graham Stanley and Kyle Mawer <> and looking into ways of integrating Minecraft and Second Life into our curriculum, especially the former; e.g. <> and <>. And in one of these podcasts it's mentioned that ESOL teachers are predominant among educators using Minecraft:
But these are hard sells.  Colleagues can't always see the link between the game activity and the curriculum.  It has been pointed out that those questioning the value of gaming sometimes ask, "But is it in the curriculum?"  The short clever reposte is to flip that to, "Actually, the curriculum is in the game."

Recently the US Dept. of State has developed a game called Trace Effects where these linkages are much more obvious. I have known the prime developer, Rick Rosenberg, for some time, and I saw him working on this when I attended the recent TESOL conference in Philadelphia, but after exploring the Ning set up to provide resources and develop community around the game, I realize that there is a prolific team effort behind this (e.g. Deborah Healey who was one of the scriptwriters, and Dawn Bilkowski who wrote the teachers' manual to include a rationale for gaming in language learning). From the seminars and teaching materials I realize that a course. or a good part of one, could be built around this from what is already online.

Unlike Minecraft, this game is free. Also unlike Minecraft, its online version can only be played in single player mode (though there are accompanying games that can be played against other players online). But the game does not require Internet; it can also be played via DVDs that can be obtained (also free) from US Embassies and consulates, as well as from Regional Language Officers and from American Corners abroad. 

The game is a lot of fun to play. It has the immersive look and feel of Second Life, except that your avatar (Trace) can only jump and run, not fly. The game is played from the point of view of a future university student Trace who, on a tour of a science lab pushes one button too many on a time machine and ends up at the same location, but in the present time. You become Trace as he struggles to figure out what has happened to him and goes in search of people who can help him return to his own time zone. On the way he picks up certain powers (verbs) which can be used to activate the objects in his inventory.  The game is a sharp departure from other video games in that there is no violence, and cooperation and helpful behavior are rewarded. The game teaches culture in the USA and helps build language that will help students develop their emerging language skills and come to better understand the culture.

There is a Ning at with forums for discussion around the game and a repository of resources.  Hopefully, this repository can become a clearinghouse for teachers worldwide who develop materials that can be used in teaching language using Trace Effects

Teachers will want to join the Ning. It helps if you can provide the secret password divulged in the first seminar on Trace Effects given by Rick Rosenberg (something to do with the U.S. State Department publication, the English Language Teaching Forum). All seminars are recorded and their links are at the Ning: The Ning provides a wealth of other materials including a page of 19 links to teacher resources, from manuals to extension activities and worksheets to games and scavenger hunts:

If practical, it's best to access the game online through your (or your students') ID's and passwords.  To find the game online, enter 'trace effects' into a search engine, or go directly to  Account creation is simple: just provide an email address (for password recovery), a user name, and a password.  Game access is instantaneous, and subsequent logons will take you back to your last checkpoint, or accomplishment, in the game.

The only problem is the time it takes to download and install the Unity browser (or browser plugin) through which the game must be played.  I reported trouble loading Unity into Chrome once, but I simply switched to IE and it worked fine, and I'm using it with Chrome now, and it's working fine. I spent a morning installing the Unity browser needed for game play to computers in our Independent Learning Center to get them ready for students.  I found that installing from the DVD had no impact on the web browser, so if planning to play online, you need to install the Unity browser first.  I found that this could take anywhere from 3 to 20 minutes first time. It says in the user manual that in order to install the browser you need to play through the opening sequence and get your avatar into the Quad of the university, and once there close the game.  After this we were able to log on as other users and not be prompted to download the software.  Sometimes it took just a minute or two for the game to ready itself for the new user, but one of my students came along and tried it, and though he was not prompted to download and install anything, his configuration routine still took almost 20 minutes.  It might be good in this case to have the standalone version loaded in from the DVD so the students would have something to explore while waiting for their personal version of the game to load in.

I'll provide more feedback here once we've learned more about how students and staff can most quickly install and access the game, and I'll report problems to look out for, but hopefully dwell mostly on success.

A lot of work has clearly gone into development, enough to impress colleagues. Trace Effects  looks like a well-conceived and highly validated entry into gaming that will pave the way for work with Minecraft and other interesting and challenging activities for young students, once their teachers come to better understand the power and potential of learning inherent in utilizing enjoyable games in the curriculum.  Work with this game should help achieve a better understanding of that concept.

The Webinar recordings are an excellent resource for finding out more about the game and how to teach it. The webinar recordings are available here:  There are usually 3 recordings for each webinar in the series: (1) the dry run dress rehearsal produced by each speaker without audience interaction, (2) the first interactive recording, and (3) the second interactive recording.  The webinars were normally given twice in one day several hours apart.  The speakers are:
  • Introduction to Trace, Rick Rosenberg, Nov 20, 2012
  • Teaching with Trace Effects: Tips in the Teacher's Manual, Dawn Bikowski Dec 4, 2012 
  • Extending Learning in Trace Effects: Practice Activities and Multi-player Games, Deborah Healey, Dec 18, 2012
The next webinars will be:
  • Webinar 4: Using Trace Effects Graphic Novels and Video in the Classroom
  • Webinar 5: How Do You Know What Works? 
  • Webinar 6: Learning by Doing: Communicative Language Teaching with Trace Effects
  • Webinar 7: Trace Effects and the TESOL Standards
  • Webinar 8: Incorporating Trace Effects Teacher's Manual Activities into Lesson Plans
More information is available

This post will likely be updated as we learn more, so stay tuned. 


  1. Hi Vance,
    I'm actually hoping to do an evaluation project for my grad class on Trace Effects. How is it going now? You provided a lot of user feedback. Are your students learning from the program? Thanks for sharing!


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