There is something about a locked box that incites the curiosity in all of us. It’s both an invitation to explore and an immediate challenge. Everyone knows what they have to do: open the box. But how?
Escape Rooms are a fast-growing form of entertainment with venues popping up in towns and cities all over the UK – think Crystal Maze meets The Adventure Game. A quick Google reveals any number of themes from a Chicago Speakeasy to a Mausoleum, games inspired by literature – such as Alice in Wonderland, or by films like the Matrix or Saw, as well as numerous Harry Potter and Game of Thrones look-alikes. But what about if we used these experiences for learning - inciting the curiosity of the students, and getting them to apply their knowledge, problem-solving, and critical and creative thinking skills to a set of very real problems, in a timed and competitive setting?
The first escape room style lesson I made was a simple team-building induction activity. I could only afford a few boxes and so I made a “one-box-wonder” – one box locked with one four digit padlock per team, along with five puzzles – one puzzle for each digit, and a fifth puzzle for the order - about a 30 minute game. The students loved it. Working in teams they quickly became so immersed in the puzzles that the noise levels rocketed, and there wasn’t one person just standing by. In fact this activity seems to appeal in particular to those students who are perhaps normally the most reticent in group situations, and it has proved to be a great leveller when the puzzles are sufficiently different to engage everyone’s skills.
With more than one box per team you can be more inventive – use briefcases, cashboxes or even padlocked biscuit tins as well as locked boxes. This conference style table-top escape game is very portable, different departments can use the same basic kit, and as all the locks have resettable combinations they can be used for very different puzzles. You can also use digital and social media tools as the containers with “passwords” as the key-codes, which in itself is a great way to teach certain digital skills. One participant at my HEA conference workshop has created an escape game for staff to learn how to mark student assignments online, with hardly a padlock in sight.
At Leeds Trinity University we are using escape room style games as immersive scenarios for the classroom, as part of a series of “assessment centre” activities, as a successful playful alternative to library and study skills sessions run by the librarians, and as projects for teaching enterprise and employability skills. With the creation of “Trinity Games” we will shortly be providing work-based learning for students from all disciplines in creative, commercial, media-rich projects.
We don’t just use these games conference style. With creative timetabling, students can participate in 60 minute games in teams of up to six, just like their commercial counterparts. Crime scenes lend themselves particularly to the one hour escape room format, and can be useful learning experiences for students on Criminology or Forensic Science programmes, enabling them to handle evidence and give first sight of the sorts of reports that criminal investigators use. We have used the same game for journalists, with an additional immersive element of a press conference at the end, and an additional learning outcome around understanding which parts of the investigation they are allowed to report on at each stage.
Our next escape game is a Murder Mystery designed as a revision exercise for an Accountancy exam. External knowledge will most certainly be needed to dissect the accounts of two rival companies, and decide whodunit and why in the matter of a Company Director’s murder. It’s designed to stimulate social learning as well as application of critical financial calculations and formulas. At the very least, it will make a nice change from flashcards.
Read part 2 of Liz's blog on escape games for learning here.