It’s difficult to ignore the seemingly ubiquitous presence of escape room games these days. There seems to be at least one outlet for them in just about every city, and they’re touted as the perfect solution for everything from busting tourism boredom to throwing birthday parties to creating action-packed team building exercises for corporations. More recently, escape rooms have also started popping up in educational settings with teachers using them to engage learners in content and even to replace final exams! (Check out ThinkFun's own collection of Escape the Room games here.)
What’s with this genre of gameplay and what does the popularity say about people and their drive for escaping?
The Escape Room Has Many Precursors
While the escape room itself is a relatively new phenomenon that has only been popular in the last 10 years or so, there are many precursors in gaming and pop culture that helped usher in this craze. Writing for Analog Game Studies in 2016, Scott Nicholson identified several influences:
- Point-and-Click Adventure Games: Throughout the 1980s, there were several text-based adventure games that rose in popularity as early computers became more commonplace and affordable. Games like Zork — designed by four MIT graduates — had players navigating through a labyrinth of dangers and came with complex strategy guides. As technology improved, graphic-based exploration adventure games like Myst filled this same drive. The games combined different kinds of puzzles with a larger narrative to explore an unknown world and put the pieces together over time.
- Treasure Hunts: Treasure hunts are certainly nothing new, and for decades players have used them to have a collective experience based on a shared objective. Pokémon Go taps into this same drive to physically move through space chasing elusive pieces to reach a bigger goal.
- Adventure Reality TV Shows: Another influence for escape rooms has been TV shows that feature teams competing in physical challenges for the entertainment of onlookers. Survivor, which premiered in 2000, is a recent version, but the UK’s The Adventure Game predates it by two decades and shows that this kind of entertainment has a longstanding history.
- Haunted Houses: Some escape rooms definitely have a theatrical appeal to them with game runners getting involved by being dressed in character and interacting with players. These entertainment influences have their roots in immersive experiences like haunted houses or interactive dinner theater where the line between participant and performer gets blurred.
- Live-Action Role-Playing (LARP) Games: Dungeons and Dragons has long been the most popular role-playing game, and dedicated players wanted to find ways to make the experience even more engaging. This gave way to LARP experiences that often take place at conferences where like-minded fans can get together.
So, while it may seem like the rise of escape rooms came out of nowhere, the truth is that the drive for immersive, hands-on entertainment experiences has long been a part of gaming and pop culture. Escape rooms just manage to bring several of these elements together at once!
The escape room as we know it — where a group of individuals convene in a physical commercial space and pay money to get locked in a room before working together to (hopefully) beat the clock and escape — started in Japan and has now become big business across Europe and America.
Escape Rooms as Education
Most people think of escape rooms for their entertainment value, but their popularity has many innovative educators trying to combine educational goals with them. As Zara Stone writes for The Atlantic, the benefits of escape rooms in education are two-fold: “Games have a history of promoting engagement in a learning environment, and the collaborative elements help students develop social skills.”
Gamification has long been a way to create learning experiences that legitimately engage learners’ attention and interest, and an escape room offers a way to put it into practice while also promoting communication and problem-solving skills.
Studies have shown that active learning is much more likely to result in retained knowledge than rote memorization, and having to apply what they’ve learned to a hands-on experience provides learners with motivation and context for their lessons.
Are Escape Rooms in Trouble?
Of course, getting together in a small space where lots of other people have touched things isn’t exactly a popular activity right now as the Covid-19 pandemic still rages. Escape rooms are among the many industries struggling to keep the lights on with social distancing requirements making their conventional practices impossible.
Some escape room businesses have been adapting by creating more private sessions with frequent cleanings between plays, but other innovative efforts are taking place as well. Virtual escape rooms are allowing participants to play over Zoom.
Many people are also hosting their own in-home escape rooms with the help of well-designed games to transform their living rooms into suspenseful settings.
While the delivery of escape rooms might need to shift — at least for the time being, it’s clear that they have tapped into a universally popular human drive for curiosity. We’re hard-wired to work as a member of a group and to want to know more about our surroundings, and escape rooms let us experience the thrill of suspenseful situations while adding the satisfactory element of getting to control our own destinies — as long as we think quick and communicate well.
I received a game in exchange for this blog post. All opinions expressed belong to me.
Michelle Parrinello-Cason is an educator with a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition who has taught in college, high school, and elementary settings. Her focus is on helping students who have struggled to find a fit in traditional classrooms find positive learning experiences. She has done this through teaching developmental writing classes, creating curriculum for gifted students, and engaging in the homeschool community to create non-traditional learning opportunities.
A note from ThinkFun
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