- As physical escape rooms continue to grow in popularity in the United States, the use of escape rooms in educational contexts is still a relatively new trend
- There are differences between commercial escape rooms and educational escape rooms
- It’s important to keep learning outcomes in mind when choosing or building an educational escape room
- There are a lot of educational escape game resources available to help you get started
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Lisa Heller Boragine is a department chair and a tenured associate professor of Communication. She is a member of the board of directors of the North American Simulation and Gaming Association (NASAGA)
Chances are you’ve heard of escape rooms. Perhaps you’ve even played one with your family or friends. A typical scenario is where you and your group are “locked” in a room and presented with a series of puzzles and challenges that you have to complete to “break out” before the imaginary zombies/bomb/assassins get you. It’s fun and unique, leading the popularity of puzzle rooms to skyrocket in the last 8 to 10 years. In 2014, there were only 22 escape rooms in the United States. At last count, in 2022 there were 2,300 escape rooms. You can find break-out rooms all over the place – just take a quick peek at this USA directory and it’s likely that you’ll find an escape room somewhere near you. Looking outside of the United States? Never fear, you can find escape rooms all over the world.
That’s great for entertainment, but how about education? After all, popularity and fun don’t always translate into learning objectives. It’s one thing to design an escape game for entertainment, entirely another to build one to meet educational goals.
In this article, I share some important qualities of an escape game, highlighting important differences between commercial escape rooms and educational escape games. I will identify some criteria to use when choosing a game, such as what are the fundamental components of an escape game. Finally, I will provide you some useful resources to get you started using educational escape games.
Qualities of an escape game
There are a few things that must be clarified about escape games. First, the room isn’t important. Scott Nicholson, one of the world’s leading researchers on escape rooms, seems to prefer the term “escape games,” because you could just be trying to solve a problem, not break out of anywhere. Escape games are cooperative games. This is what makes them so useful for education: players need to learn how to communicate and work together. The fact that escape games are often timed adds external pressure and excitement to the experience and can facilitate a strong bonding experience.
Those who design escape rooms must be mindful of cultural bias. Avoidable problems can occur when we make false assumptions about shared backgrounds and values. If a game asks people to input a date on the calendar, it needs to clarify the order. Is it date/month/year, year/month/date, or month/day/year? How you list the date will vary depending on where you were raised. Additionally, references to American popular culture might work with one audience, but not if your participants have limited exposure to media and trends. One way to reduce ambiguity and to build better puzzles is Scott Nicholson’s rule to “ask why.” Ask yourself why a player would do something. If they wouldn’t think to do it, don’t make it a fundamental clue to solving the game.
Educational escape games vs. Commercial escape games
There are a few key differences between educational escape games and commercial escape games. Here we highlight some of the most important ones:
- Commercial escape rooms by design rarely assume prior knowledge on the part of the players. Not so with educational games: an educational escape game might intentionally be designed to require players to do research before the game or even during the game to resolve a challenge.
- The facilitator of an educational escape game might take on one or more roles in the game. They could role play multiple people that players will encounter during the game.
- With a commercial game there are typically only two outcomes. You either solve the puzzle or you don’t. In comparison, an educational game might have a variety of possible endings, all of which need to lead to the learning outcomes.
- Possibly the most important difference between commercial escape games and educational escape games is the educational aspect. It all boils down to how well a game provides a learning opportunity for students.
Choose an educational escape game with your learning outcomes in mind
Escape games come in many puzzle forms and types and have a variety of narrative approaches. For a game to be useful, it needs to effectively deliver learning outcomes, not simply provide a fun classroom bonding activity. Therefore, the specific learning objectives should influence the choices you make regarding type, form, and approach.
For example, if a game aims to teach about library resources and research skills, the real-world physical setting of the game becomes important. If you want students to learn how to find and talk to a reference librarian, you might have teams of students travel around the library looking for clues that point them in the direction of the reference librarian office. If on the other hand, you want students to learn teamwork, you should choose puzzles that require them to work together, you might deliberately design a game so that information is distributed to players in such a way that a team can only win if they work together and share resources. Or perhaps you want students to use the game to demonstrate a mastery of their skills in a certain area of the curriculum, such as being able to look up elements on the periodic table.
It’s important to note that the different types of escape games are not mutually exclusive. One puzzle might include multiple types of tasks and approaches. So, you might have an escape game at the library that is also designed to promote social interaction.
Ready to get started?
Why reinvent the wheel? If you are interested in trying out an educational escape room, the good news is that there are lots of great resources available to get you started.
Join Lisa Heller Boragine for an interactive session on building an educational escape room at the Empowered Educator Online Conference. Discuss the power of educational escape games to build student motivation, engagement, problem-solving skills and cognitive understanding.