Can Escape Rooms be effective serious games? After this November’s SAGANET session I believe this can be answered with a resounding yes. Speakers Marco Bakker from Escape Expert, Carel Ketelaars from IntotheMirror and Marc van Hasselt from Novitas Heritage all gave inspiring presentations, and let us not only participate in one serious escape room, but also let us design our own after giving us a set of pointers. The result could be called an interactive meta-learning experience for makers of interactive learning experiences.

So what did we learn with twenty-ish participants? For one, that Escape Rooms are relatively easy to start up. All Marco told us for example, was: “You have to get into something in this room, instead of escaping. So. That’s it. Good luck. You can start!” And off we went, exploring the room without any coordination, picking up puzzles which were strewn all over the place. In our group of course there is no hierarchical order, nor a leader. So to compensate I try to act as a flying goalkeeper, tying groups and results together, and making sure all puzzles are addressed. “Very successful teams coordinate by shouting out their results and storing them in a central place,” tells Marco, while he stops the game midway. I can imagine. Marco also helps us a bit sometimes, but most of his time can be spent just observing what we do in the group. As a facilitator he might have more time than with other types of game to observe, and would pollute the group process less with his own presence – if he chose to stand back completely. It would be interesting to have research on these points.

In the end we had our “confetti moment” – a necessary component, the speakers agree – and finished with nine minutes left. We were the best and most interesting group – of the day.

Why did you move to Escape Rooms as a serious game?” we ask Marco. “In three words? Escape Rooms sell.” There is something to say for that. People know the phenomenon, and many will feel less intimidated to participate. Where hard core realistic clients may fear to do something “creative” to loosen up and show their “true self”, they may be coaxed much more easily in doing “some puzzles” together, and show a lot of natural group behavior after all. Marc ran many games for over ten years, sometimes with hundreds of participants at the same time.

Escape rooms do well in bringing out communication issues in groups. Addressing other issues or themes may be a bit more of a challenge, and often requires thought. Escape rooms are a very effective tool, but they are no silver bullet. Marc and Carel like to put at least one dilemma in each of their games, to let the participants think more deeply about an issue. Shall I keep the stolen money for myself, or share it with all? Shall I help someone escape and endanger myself, or not? Shall I choose for the Americans or the Russians? Dilemma’s like these can aid in immersion, and make good subjects for debriefing afterward.

Marc and Carel give a joint presentation on what in their experience makes a good Escape Game, especially in the heritage sector. Marc’s company has installed many games in museums all over the country, and Carel helped out with some. Escape rooms here have to run without facilitators and a minimum of upkeep if at all possible, because these places are always understaffed. So Marc and Carel’s preference goes to hybrid digital-analog games, where their puzzle “locks” and “chests” are typically digital and are reset easily by the mobile app or computer, while the clues and puzzles can be tactile and physical. Another thing they like to do is enabling teamwork and communication between players, by making puzzles in such a way that you cannot solve them on your own. After listing some do’s and don’ts, we are left to our own devices to build our own mini-escape room. “Your task is to make an escape room that shows what you can do to a prospective client, and letting them play it to get a taste.” They also provide us with a huge set of puzzle boxes and combination locks for inspiration and use in our own game. In groups of four we then start to discuss, cooperate, brainstorm and build. The most memorable result perhaps is the one group that has a chest to be locked onto one of the players’ heads, only to be released once the puzzle of its lock is broken by the team. It’s such good fun that several of us have to try it for themselves: putting your head in a cardboard box.

All that and an excellent dinner at the Zonheuvel location in Doorn made this a very successful and memorable seminar.

Jaap de Goede, November 16, 2021