What happens when you put six educators in a locked room, where they have to solve puzzles to escape in thirty minutes?
That’s how I spent my Friday night. Real-life room escape is a hot new type of game, where you and a group of friends have to find clues, solve puzzles, and overcome challenges in order to escape a room.
My school principal invited folks to check it out, so we wound up with a self-selected group of six: two principals, three teachers, and a school psychologist. We went to Escape Canton and tried their Cursed Tomb room. We had thirty minutes to get out of an ancient Egyptian-themed tomb that reminded me strongly of temple dungeons from The Legend of Zelda video game series.
Before beginning, we surrendered our phones, for several reasons: one, to prevent cheating (definitely would have used the flashlight function right away!); two, to prevent distractions (we really needed all thirty minutes to focus and think); and three, to prevent the secrets of the room from leaking out on social media. I’ll also try to review and describe the experience without giving too much away.
So, as soon as the countdown clock started, mayhem ensued. It reminded me of the first time you hand out iPads to first graders. Everyone was talking over each other and “searching” for clues in a way that made a giant mess. It was pandemonium, and it took some time before natural leadership emerged from among us. And natural leadership did emerge, between three and five minutes in. But it wasn’t a single person; in terms of time management, we needed people to work on different strands of puzzles simultaneously. Six people one one puzzle would have been too many cooks in a kitchen anyway. So leadership that emerged was based on the challenges before us, not based on the personalities of the people in the room.
There were a couple times when folks displayed excellent out-of-the-box thinking and almost magical clue-finding, but I think my proudest moment was when trying to solve an enormous wall-mounted puzzle. It was the kind of thing that you could solve by yourself, if you had lots of time and lots of patience. We had neither. I had made repeated attempts to recruit members of the group to help me: “Hey guys, I need help… guys? Guys?” Finally, I zeroed in on a single other person and simply said, “I need help with this. This is exactly how you can help me.” I was going to manipulate the pieces while she read the clue and talked me through it. We made an attempt but were looking at the clue from the wrong angle, so we had to start over. As we worked other people came over – another person helped me manipulate the pieces more efficiently, and another person helped the clue-reader finesse how she communicated the information. We had to try four times before we got it right, but we did eventually succeed. How’s that for grit?
We made it to the homestretch, literally the last puzzle, before we ran out of time. But even losing at the game was a positive experience overall. It was such a thrill, a rush. And with the time limit, you don’t have a lot of time to bicker. You have to make your arguments persuasive and to the point if you have a disagreement with another team member. There were some puzzles that brought out different people’s strengths, so if it wasn’t your strength, you could let someone else take the lead. It was a good reminder that a good team doesn’t have all the same abilities and weaknesses, both physically and mentally.
If you have the chance to try and escape room, I would recommend it, with some caveats. It might be good to clarify in advance how “scary” it is. We had a “chicken” on our team who was frank about it to begin with, and we were assured she would be fine. (The other room option available that night, which I checked out later with a smaller group, was slightly scarier.) The venue we went to usually operates a haunted house during the Halloween season, and no way did the escape room experience approach their haunted-house-scariness levels. Some of the challenges were physical in nature, like moving something heavy, or putting or getting things from high or low places. So if you’re not physically the most agile person, that’s fine, but you might want to make sure you have balance on your team. Also, I guess sometimes props might be made of materials such as latex, so if you have any allergies like that, you might need to clarify that with the venue in advance. Also, different escape rooms are going to be different experiences in terms of setting, atmospheres, puzzle types, etc. For example, the Cursed Tomb was dark; the Serial Killer was more brightly lit. That’s not to say that one escape room experience is automatically better than another, just that every escape room will be a different experience, and sometimes those differences make it difficult to directly compare them.