Review by Chad Sansing, Common Sense Education | Updated June 2015

Trace Effects

Time-travel adventure engages English-language learners

Subjects & skills
  • Social Studies
  • English Language Learning

  • Communication & Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking
Grades This grade range is a recommendation by Common Sense Education and not the developer/publisher.
Common Sense says (See details)
Teachers say (3 Reviews)

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Pros: Clear speech and the ability to replay conversations makes the game easy to understand.

Cons: Technical issues like long load times and floaty controls take away from the story and learning.

Bottom Line: A positive story and interesting word-collection challenge help students develop skills in English.

Trace Effect includes a rich teacher's resource linking to lessons, websites, and activities students can use to further their involvement in the game. Trace Effects will probably function best as an enrichment or practice activity, though -- it doesn't do much actual teaching, and it relies on students having a pretty solid grasp of the English language.

Teachers could also encourage students to do some writing of their own, creating graphic novels like the ones on the website to illustrate their own adventures in time travel. There could be some excellent opportunities for cultural discussion here, particularly if the time travel also involved traveling through space, allowing students to document the cultural difficulties an American student might have in their own home country, for example.

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Trace Effects is an online 3-D exploration and logic puzzle game about civic participation designed for English-language learners (ELLs). Players control Trace, a time-traveling college student who’s sent back to the present from the year 2045. He arrives in our time and must undertake several missions to help people accomplish goals that improve life in the present. To complete his missions, Trace must collect two kinds of resources: verbs and items. Verbs appear in each level as floating words, such as deliver, and once Trace walks into them, they disappear from the game world and reappear in his inventory. Items (including a candle) appear as floating objects or are received from other characters in the story. As Trace completes missions, he hears back from his friends in the future about the positive effects his actions are having on their world. For example, when Trace helps a young activist document his efforts to clean a river, that activist becomes a famous photographer and spokesperson for the environment in Trace's time.

Kids play each chapter of Trace Effects to unlock both the next chapter and part of a graphic novel summarizing each completed chapter. At the end of each chapter, kids have access to language practice activities. They also have the option to print a chapter completion certificate listing the language skills they used in the game. There is currently a known technical issue that means players can't advance levels automatically and have to send an email to the developer to access the next chapter.

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The game's story is silly, but it's also sincere and compelling. Characters speak clearly and slowly, and the game always offers students the opportunity to replay and rehear conversations, making the game adaptable to different ability levels. Better still, Trace Effects manages to cram quite a bit of learning in a simple game mechanism. For example, players make choices about how to proceed in conversations in a mechanism reminiscent of popular adventure games like Mass Effect. The game also displays emotions so you can gauge characters' responses to your conversation. When delivering sandwiches, for example, walking up to a character and demanding "What is your name?" results in them becoming annoyed and asking, "Why do you want to know?" Asking if they ordered a sandwich, on the other hand, results in them becoming happy and saying, "Why yes, I did."

Trace Effects has a lot going for it -- simple game mechanisms that teach English language, cultural awareness, and civic responsibility all at once. There are also some problems: The levels take about a minute to load and won't advance automatically, and the controls are annoying in enclosed quarters. Older students might become bored by the point-and-click nature of many of the game's quests, as well.

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Overall Rating

Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return?

Solid gameplay will engage players in spite of shaky controls and some repetitive gameplay.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer?

Trace Effects melds clear, simple conversation with idioms and colloquial expressions for great conversation practice.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students?

The readings, mini-games, and resources around Trace Effects’ main quest line offer teachers and kids extra language practice and enrichment.

Common Sense Reviewer
Chad Sansing Classroom teacher

Teacher Reviews

(See all 3 reviews) (3 reviews) Write a review
Featured review by
Susan R. , Classroom teacher
Classroom teacher
Lebanon High School
Lebanon, NH
The Trace Effects games and associated curriculum demonstrated merit in being a fun learning experience for primarily ELL students.
The Trace Effects website can be used a supplemental learning tool or re-enforcement of learning English language. Trace Effects was developed by the US Department of State and is intended for learners all over the world as a means of promoting American English and understanding of American culture. It may also be an interesting learning tool for younger ages that are not ELL. Trace Effects is a college student from the year 2045 that has time traveled back to the current time in an effort to change his future for the better. To complete his mission Trace must help other people from the current time accomplish certain tasks, which in turn will return him to the future from which he came. The games were fun and engaging to play. Trace Effects is player controlled game (online requiring the download of a plugin to run, or by disk) in which the player controls Trace, his actions, and conversations with game avatars/characters. The game did seem glitchy after reaching certain levels of progression and it was unclear if this just the way we played the game or if it was a global issue. These technical glitches could interfere with progression and learning. Resources included in Trace Effects include practice vocabulary games (matching, fill in the blank, etc.) and multi-player games that this reviewer was unable to engage in as the games were unable to find other online players to play with. In addition to these game based resources there are learner and teacher resources via hyperlink to the website where audio files, .pdf’s of classic literature, and more resources for teachers and learners regarding topics/lessons in American English and culture. These resources are relevant and appropriate as supplemental materials for the game play. The Trace Effects game begins as a graphic novel style story that turns into the online game. After downloading the plugin, the game turned out to have a small learning curve (learning how to maneuver the Trace avatar, using the w, a,s, & d keys, and follow all the options and hints). Once over the learning curve, the game became relatively engaging. And while it was fun to play (accomplishing checkpoints along the way), some teens may consider it too juvenile. The graphics were similar to the The Sims games. The game demonstrated a distinct pedagogy for novice English learners engaging players in choosing correct responses to different questions in different scenarios. It also exposes learners to various relevant conversations between other characters and requires users to understand and remember instructions given by various characters in the game. If students stay interested in and continue playing the game, coupled with teacher instruction using resources provided at, the Trace Effects website, its games and curriculum, demonstrated merit in being a fun learning experience for English language learners. Read full review