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U.S. State Department Unveils Online Game, and Web Site, to Teach English

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An unexpected source within the federal government—the U.S. Department of State—has put its stamp on educational technology by releasing a new, 3D video game designed to help students abroad acquire English language skills.

The game, "Trace Effects," is also meant to boost understanding abroad of American society and culture. It was recently launched as one component of a new "American English," website that provides extensive resources to teachers, students, and English-language learners around the world.

Trace Effects tells the story of a college-age student from the year 2045 who has accidentally traveled back in time to present day. To get home, that student, named Trace, needs to change the future by helping various young people accomplish important things that will improve things in the years to come.

The game, which was created for students ages 12-16, is meant to expose visitors to U.S. society and to issues that help define it, including entrepreneurship, community activism, environmental awareness, and resolving conflicts, state department officials say. In addition, the game allows participants to travel, virtually, to a number of locations throughout the United States, from New Orleans to Kansas to New York City.

"It's meant as a fun way to augment English instruction," said Susan Pittman, a spokesman for the department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which is overseeing the game and the American English site.

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Much of the federal government's current work devoted to promoting and enhancing educational technology emerges from federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Edcuation and the National Science Foundation, which have a long history of funding projects in that area.

But the State Department's American English site offers a lot of educational resources of its own, including pedagogical materials designed to help teachers in foreign countries improve their craft. It also presents materials for those trying to learn English—some of the more colorful examples are audio readings and texts of books such as Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Jack London's To Build a Fire and Other Stories. Many of the publications on the site were either created or adapted by staff in the department's Office of English Language Programs, Pittman said. Other resources were drawn from from other organizations, with their permission.

Trace Effects was in development for about five years, Pittman said. It was initially released through CDs on a more limited basis, in Peru, Colombia, and Indonesia, before its launch online last month. The online version had the added feature of allowing students to play against each other, Pittman said.

Information on who's using the American English is still rolling in, but the preliminary details are intriguing.

Web users in China have accounted for about 32 percent of the visits to the site so far, Pittman said. About 16 percent of the users have accessed the site through mobile devices, she added. The site recently drew about 25,000 visits on a single day in December, not long after it was launched.

Photo: Children in Karachi, Pakistan, play the Trace Effects video game during a pilot test earlier this year. Both photo and image of Trace Effects, courtesy of the State Department.

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