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The U.S. State Department Gets in the Education Game

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Trace Effects

The U.S. State Department is jumping into the ed-tech world with an online game meant to help teach "American English" to kids between the ages of 12-16 in more than 30 countries. Meant to provide players with a view of American life and culture different from the typical portrayal in movies, Trace Effects officially launches today. It’s part of a bigger effort from the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs (ECA) to revamp its website and materials to today's technology, as well as offer an interactive tool to engage English learners abroad.

Trace Effects tells the story of Trace, an androgynous male character who returns from the future to visit the United States charged with changing the world for the better. If he's unsuccessful, he won’t be able to return to his own time. Throughout the course of the game, Trace travels the U.S. to sites like New Orleans and the Grand Canyon, learning about the unique cultures, interacting with local people and completing missions. The missions are related to key themes woven throughout the game that include entrepreneurship, community activism, empowering women, science and innovation, environmental conservation, and conflict resolution. Students can choose different ways to solve missions and help Trace get back home.

The game took five years to develop, in part because the State Department wanted to be sure the game wouldn't offend anyone. Even the name Trace is fairly free of culture, creed, class or language. ECA’s English program used to focus on teacher training, but in the past 10 years, it has begun transitioning to student focused work with an eye on younger, more marginalized students.

The Bureau now offers English Access Micro-scholarships, which provide funds to local partners teaching English for things like computers, which can now use Trace Effects. The game is Internet-based, but if connectivity is bad, the State Department has also handed out the game on disc.

“The Department of State does not teach English because we want to be the world’s best English teachers. We do it because we want to build bridges of understanding and the ability to communicate,” said Marti Estell, Director of English Language Programs. She sees the American English program as an essential part of furthering U.S. foreign policy goals. “For all the long-term foreign policy goals you have to have the ability to dialogue, you have to have enough of a relationship where you are speaking together,” she said. “And one way to do that is to work in areas that are non-confrontational, areas where we have complimentary goals.”


Trace Effects has already been beta-tested with learners in several countries, and a sampling of educators from Karachi said they found the story and activities engaging and wanted to play again. They also said they found opportunities to introduce new grammar concepts and more opportunities for conversation sparked by the places Trace visits and the people he meets on his journey.

The State Department has also set up a Ning, an online discussion group that flies under censorship radars in most countries, in order to facilitate dialogue between educators using the game in different countries.

“We’re being seen as promoting their dialogue without really participating, just creating the space. And that is huge,” said Estell. Now, they hope, educators can share best practices for using the game as a teaching tool and build a community of American English teachers and learners.