The science behind why we love Escape The Room games

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    The group tries to solve puzzles to escape the room. (Charlie Kaier/WHYY)

    The group tries to solve puzzles to escape the room. (Charlie Kaier/WHYY)

    For a fee, you and a handful of friends, or coworkers, can escape from a medieval torture chamber, or a CDC laboratory, or “The 80s.” The question is, why do we look for situations to escape from? 

    In the lower level of a tall office building in Philadelphia, a group of coworkers from a health care consulting firm recently gathered to give an Escape The Room game, their best shot.

    A friendly guy named Gamemaster Hank laid out the simple challenge they’d tackle for the next 60 minutes.

    “Basically, you’re going to go inside this room, I’m going to lock the door and you have one hour to figure out how to escape.”

    With a grin, Gamemaster Hank advised the group to explore every nook and cranny, but not to go too far.

    “The room itself is not a part of the puzzle, it is a container for the puzzle. What this means is there’s nothing hidden under the carpet or in the wall or in the ceiling, the electrical sockets are functional electrical sockets. They are not magical key holes.” 

    That warning gives you some idea of just how competitive people can get. To get out of this room, like others, the group needs to follow a series of hints and discover physical clues that are located in the room.

    Hank led the coworkers into the room and closed the door firmly. The players wasted no time getting to work: rifling through drawers, overturning small pieces of furniture, digging through scraps of paper.

    Laura, a woman in a red sweater, made a beeline for a purple Post-it note and a white piece of paper. She took the clock off the wall and moved swiftly around the room, full of ideas. To stay organized and focused, she suggested the group compile all the clues together on the desk in front of her.

    The space the group gathered in looked a lot like an office. Which makes sense, since this particular Escape The Room game is called “The Office.” The set’s complete with drop-ceiling tiles, white walls, cubicle dividers and industrial blue and purple carpet. It could be a health care consulting firm or a real estate company.

    While they frantically worked, a digital clock on the wall showed the minutes slipping away.

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    Reaping the benefits of “fast thinking”

    Art Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, says all of this running around, trying to decode clues, is good. “There’s a lot of benefit to activity, on your mood. So even getting up and taking a walk tends to lift your mood because you do get a bit of a release of dopamine, which is correlated with positive mood.” Markman says that increases even more when you engage in “fast thinking.”

    Fast thinking like the type you’d have to engage in to ‘Escape From Wizard School.’ That’s a puzzle room located in Markman’s town of Austin, Texas. Markman says, “one of the things that we know from a lot of research over the last 10 or 12 years is that the faster you’re thinking, the better you feel.” And when you’re in a social group working on a problem together, Markman says, that “energy makes everyone in the group think faster and that actually elevates people’s moods.”

    Back in the fake office she’s trying to escape, Donnelle is standing next to a large black desk trying to understand a code. Or at least, what she thinks could be a code, “They don’t fit do they? Six?” She keeps trying to crack it. To keep the details of the game a secret, I’ve agreed not to give too much away.

    Laura, the woman in the red sweater, organized this escape. She says the game is harder than she expected. “Because I think we’re so disorganized right now.” She says, like the rest of the group, she’s the sort of person who likes to be organized. “We’re a bunch of Type As so I think we’re half battling teamwork and half battling like ‘can we win?'”

    One of the players, Jordan, says that after working with these people for more than two years, the game brought out a different side of them.

    “People are coming out of their shells. I think they actually feel comfortable here and they’re actually more outgoing than they are usually in the office.”

    Psychologists say we can learn a lot from how people behave in escape rooms.

    Kevin Swartout is a social psychologist and assistant professor at Georgia State University. He says people often behave differently and are more willing to speak up with opinions and expertise when they’re trapped in a room with the minutes ticking away. That’s compared to a boardroom where answers aren’t so simple.

    “I think people in an escape room, when they know that there is a correct answer and the tasks are pretty specific, if they feel like they’re good at those tasks, like maybe it’s a spatial reasoning type task or solving an anagram, they might feel more confident and be more willing to speak up, whereas they wouldn’t in other circumstances.”

    Not all Escape Room players know the other people in the room. If you don’t book all the slots, you can end up problem-solving side-by-side with total strangers. Swartout says in those situations, people are forced to form relationships fast, and quickly adopt social roles as leaders and followers.

    Amateur Psychologists 

    There are interruptions during our hour-long game. Gamemasters, like Hank, watch players via cameras and feed clues through a screen mounted on the wall. Swartout calls game masters ‘amateur psychologists’ because it’s their job to know the mood of the room.

    “For instance, when people are starting to have doubt in themselves and maybe lose momentum and maybe lose hope that they’ll get out of the room, that’s when you give another clue to keep momentum up and energized and keep people moving. And again, that makes it much more satisfying for the participants.”

    These games aren’t just fun. Psychology professor Art Markman says coworkers can learn lessons they’ll take back to the office. “You can’t engage with something unless there’s a particular, specific thing for you to do. One of the fundamental problems people have is that they stay at that very high level: ‘I want to improve the processes of my business’, without actually dropping down and turning that into a specific plan.”

    Back in “The Office,” the group escapes with a cheer and just three minutes remaining. A couple of the players look visibly relieved, some are eager to find out what clues they missed and where they went wrong.

    Laura, the woman who organized the gathering says, it was fun. “It was kind of a blur. We were running around like chickens with our heads cut off for part of it. But I think our dynamic was pretty good.”

    Paying to get locked in ‘The Basement?’

    People aren’t just escaping from fake offices across the globe. Some take on much scarier escapes like the “Medieval Torture Room” or an ominously named one called “The Basement” in Los Angeles that involves a ‘mad man.’

    Psychology professor Art Markman says these frightening escapes, like horror movies and haunted houses, actually offer players an additional experience. “We have this whole range of emotions we’re capable of experiencing and some of them are ones that it’s hard to experience safely. So the fear system, for example, where you have some really terrible thing that you’re trying to avoid. He says in real life it’s rare you get to savor the experience of those emotions, while also escaping something really noxious.”

    For those potential players who prefer not to be frightened, there are always safer escape rooms like “The Office.”

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