The Escape Room Experience: How to Lose and Still Win Big

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The escape room experience has recently become embraced as a new and engaging alternative form of adult entertainment. The Pittsburgh region alone boasts multiple rooms, offering widely diverse experiences or differently themed rooms in locations scattered all over the city. Being somewhat of an academically-minded, puzzle-enthusiast myself, I was eager to test my own wits against what these rooms had to offer. When I received a generous (and extremely thoughtful) gift certificate for a local escape room, I was certain that I, along with a rag-tag group of my closest and smartest friends, would obliterate any previously set time records, escaping the room in an unheard of level of stealth and quickness. (Spoiler alert: that was not how things were to play out; we got crushed by the puzzles and time-constraints - and did not successfully escape - but we still came out victorious, and if you’ll read on, you’ll find out why.)

For those not familiar with the concepts underlying the escape room experience, the premise is, generally speaking, the same. Participants solve a variety of puzzles within a closed, themed environment under the restrictions of a set time limit, working to either “escape” the room or complete a designated “mission.” The obstacles that face the group are widely varied, intricate and inventive.For instance, you may be called upon to find keys to open padlocked drawers, decode clues to reveal the combination to a lock, or divulge information only visible by blacklight. The escapes are engineered to evolve in an elaborately staged environment navigated by the group.

Photo by  S.O.SAMPLE , Flickr

Photo by S.O.SAMPLE, Flickr

Going into the experience as an escape room virgin, I was completely over-confident and ridiculously geeked out. As our guide left the room, locking the door and starting the clock, I couldn’t conceive of how we could fail. A short 59 minutes later, frustrated, annoyed, and slightly-headachy, I accepted defeat and wallowed in our collective ineffectiveness as a group. The 60 minute time limit inside the room flew by, but I have been left thinking about the experience for much longer. I’ve come to the conclusion that escape rooms aren’t empty entertainment; win or lose, by playing the game, you unlock an invaluable experience that challenges your creativity and strengthens your brain. I, for one, took away the following gifts from my time in the escape room:

Suspension of Disbelief/ Creative Abandonment
To fully be immersed in the escape room experience requires a willing commitment to the premise that is put before the group: be it ridiculous or unbelievable, for the next hour, you are functioning in the imagined world in front of you. A mad scientist’s laboratory?  A mummy’s tomb? An ongoing art heist? A certain surrender to your fictional environment - however implausible or ridiculous - is necessary to succeed, as when one watches a movie or reads a book. Within the confines of an escape room, one is encouraged to release the boundaries of reality and fully engage the imagination.

Engagement of Critical Thinking
I had, of course, expected that critical thinking would be a necessary component to a successful completion of the escape experience. I had, of course, sorely underestimated the level of critical thinking involved. Math, maps, periodic tables, thermostats, textbooks and cyphers all reared their ugly heads. Things that I hadn’t thought about since high school became desperately important - and, unfortunately, were weakly remembered. (I mean, really? I’m smart - but I’m a mom, with worthless liberal arts degrees in the humanities. I’m no chemist or mathematician...which brings me to my next point…)

Photo by  johannesakabrunothedog , Flickr

Photo by johannesakabrunothedog, Flickr

Identifying Personal Strengths and Weaknesses
I won’t say that I’m cocky, but I’m confident in my academic successes; and I expected to fare well within the walls of the escape room. And, for the most part, I would say that I represented myself fairly well. Yet, there is strength in identifying your own weaknesses, in recognizing your own shortcomings. There is a certain humility involved in knowing when to contribute and when to withhold. The escape room helped me to recognize when to lead and when to fall back and follow. Check your egos at the (locked) door, and surrender to the infinite wisdom of those around you.

Working Under Time Constraints
The escape room in which I participated had a 60 minute time limit, which informed and dictated the choices we collectively made. In our everyday lives, we all function under time constraints. Escape rooms amplify the restrictions of these constraints. Every decision that was made was based on the unforgiving tick-tock of the timer. Inside the room, every second was important. We made joint decisions influenced by the all-too-fleeting minutes that were quickly passing by. We improvised, made best-guesses, and, eventually, helplessly asked for clues. As a group, we reassessed our decisions based on the amount of time that was given to us. Even knowing it was all a game, the challenge to escape was insurmountable, and yet we persisted and continued to micromanage each decision that we made according to the clock.

Team Building & Interpersonal Skills
Each group or team that navigates the escape room is composed of roughly 8-10 players. In my own escape experience, I had chosen 3 players (also known as my smartest friends) to accompany me through the gauntlet of puzzles. We were joined by 4 strangers, coupled-off and looking fresh out of college. Out of all the challenges thrown at us, intimately collaborating with these unknown persons in a high-stress situation was on par with the most difficult puzzle. And yet, we conspired. We considered. We dropped all inhibitions and came together to solve the problem that was put before us. As complete strangers we worked together, listened to one another, and trusted one another because we were locked inside of a room together. The unique and unsettling opportunity to depend upon strangers in a time of need is an invaluable experience.

Parting Thoughts
So you went to an escape room and were unsuccessful in cracking the code before the time ran out? Join the club. Thinking about going to an escape room but worried that you might not succeed? Abandon those fears. Just engaging in the experience is rewarding, as it will unveil secret spaces of your brain that you may have neglected. Creativity, critical thinking and unexpected interpersonal relationships await you. Unlock that door, and unlock your mind.

Photo by  Mounart2012 , Flickr

Photo by Mounart2012, Flickr

Cover photo by Audrunk, Flickr

Sara RuthComment