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THE RISE OF ESCAPE ROOMS

7 MIN READ

Jordi Lippe-McGraw

Why are we so in love with escape rooms and other mystery events?

Picture the scene…
You’re trapped in a log cabin in the hills of Northern California, searching like crazy for a greedy gold prospector’s hidden stash. Your group has just received a clue to the exact location. But so has the mob! Within three minutes they’ll be hammering at the door…

Suddenly, a screen pops up. It reveals the possible location of a key in an abandoned outhouse at the back of the cabin. Your heart is racing. You’re relying on your friend to input the correct lock combination that will enable you to get out, claim the riches and escape the mob! Adrenaline inducing music is increasing the panic. Time’s running out. You feel as if your life is on the line.

Then you remember it’s all a game.

Yes, you just paid money to spend an hour confined in a tiny space with a handful of your closest friends as a fun afternoon activity. Welcome to the “escape room,” where friends sign up to be locked in a themed room and work together against the clock to solve the series of riddles and interactive puzzles that will enable them to escape.

A human experience with digital roots 
This concept actually started in video games, where players had to work together in virtual reality to get out of the escape room and ‘level up’. Toshimitsu Takagi created the first game, Crimson Room, in 2004 before a Japanese company called SCRAP created a live-action version in 2007. Although popular in Asia, the concept didn’t start to spread elsewhere in the world until 2011 when a version popped up in Hungary. A year later, the first U.S. escape room opened in San Francisco.

Escape room games are now popping up right across the U.S., with people – especially in their 20s and 30s – choosing this unique bonding activity as an alternative to an after-work drink or Sunday brunch. According to the Room Escape Artist blog database, their number has exploded from 22 in 2014 to over 2,300 today. Many are carefully curated with décor and props worthy of a movie-set. There’s a Victorian-era escape room in New York City complete with antique phonograph; a murderous adventure in Los Angeles with blood-stained walls; and a prison-themed escape room in Nashville with an Alcatraz vibe. Although popular, creators try to preserve an air of secrecy around individual games. After all, the mystery is what makes them even more enticing.

Mission Mars © The Escape Game

“It’s exciting to experience theater or art with all of my senses”

Disconnecting to truly reconnect
New Yorker Lauren Wire, 30, a public relations professional, recently booked two escape room games with pals. “There had been a lot of buzz and I wanted to see what the big deal was. I thought it would be an entertaining experience that would challenge us and perhaps take us out of our comfort zone. The first time I went, I kept thinking something or someone was going to pop-out and scare us. While that didn’t happen, it did surprise me how difficult many of the tasks actually were. We lost both times!”

Nashville resident Samantha Goldstein, 31, was also intrigued about what a escape room entailed after passing one every day on her way to work. “I was always curious about it,” she says. “So, me and my six friends finally chose to do one to try something other than just getting dinner and drinking. We wanted an activity that would make us work together and think differently than we would have if we were just sitting around a table.”

It’s this very sentiment that’s arguably at the heart of why people are so attracted to these games. “There are no phones allowed in the room or option for social media picture taking,” says Wire. “So, it forces you to disconnect to reconnect with your friends truly.” Goldstein agrees adding, “It’s an activity where you’re really in the moment.”

 

Special Ops © The Escape Game

"These experiences offer an escape from the digital to the tactile, for a sense relief from an increasingly tech-obsessed world"

The Speakeasy Society © F Wild

"These experiences offer an escape from the digital to the tactile, for a sense relief from an increasingly tech-obsessed world"

The science bit: there is no substitute for human energy
Although we are more connected now than ever, thanks to social media, numerous studies have indicated that meaningful interactions are being subtly destroyed. Psychologist Mark Griffiths’ research suggests that excessive social media use has a significant detrimental effect on real-life relationships. A 2014 study, The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices, found that couples who talked without a phone present felt greater empathy towards each other.

“Screens and interactive touch surfaces so drive us that coming together with other human beings and touching physical things is exciting,” says Justin Bolognino, founder and CEO of META, an experience production company.

But more than just spending time away from our devices and making genuine connections, these collaborative games also act as a conduit for building deeper bonds. “Human energy is everything,” says Bolognino; “Nothing can beat that. I don’t care how good the tech gets.”

Both Wire and Goldstein agree that escape rooms enhance their interactions when they go out with friends after the game. Why? “You get to witness your friends in an atypical environment, which creates new conversations you might not otherwise have had,” says Wire.

It’s a big, atypical world out there
That “atypical environment” experience also lies at the heart of modern immersive theater, which was pioneered by British theater company Punchdrunk back in 2000. Punchdrunk’s hit show Sleep No More – inspired by both Macbeth and Alfred Hitchcock – has been running at The McKittrick Hotel in New York City since 2011 and is a fully free-roaming audience experience. “We live in an era where we have so much agency over what we eat, drink, wear, watch and do,” says The McKittrick Hotel’s ‘Special Envoy’ Cesar Hawas. These experiences offer “an escape from the digital to the tactile, for a sense relief from an increasingly tech-obsessed world.”

Just like escape rooms, immersive theatre has become notably more popular in recent years – along with murder mysteries, and elaborate scavenger hunts. They give you “the chance, within a safe environment, to do things that feel heightened or away from the norm,” says Julianne Just, co-artistic director of Los Angeles-based immersive entertainment company The Speakeasy Society.

The Speakeasy Society creates experiences in unusual places by adapting stories that are familiar to the culture-conscious, but with a spin and, of course, audience involvement. Past shows include The Johnny Cycle – a series of three full-length war-themed immersive experiences over three years where you, the audience, get to decide what is worth dying for.

Rachel Duncan, a hunt producer with Watson Adventures Scavenger Hunts, notes that although the company has operated across the U.S. since 1999, there has been a definite uptick in business recently because of this need for digital relief. “I’ve seen a trend towards people wanting to do an activity together.” says Duncan.

Sleep No More, Punchdrunk © McKittrick Hotel

"If paint was the medium of Van Gogh, and film is the medium for Spielberg, reality is the medium of the creators of our time"

Don’t just be there. Be present
Ultimately, these groups are helping us forge better human connections through interactions with their creations. “Presence is now the medium of our time,” says Justin Bolognino. “If paint was the medium of Van Gogh, and film is the medium for Spielberg, reality is the medium of the creators of our time. They’re creating art where not only do you have to be there to enjoy it, but it demands a certain presence of you.”


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