Playing Live-Action Escape Rooms in a Competitive Mode?

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You might have heard of the rapidly growing trend of escape room games. In escape rooms, groups of 3-8 players voluntarily get locked into a physical room. By exploring the space, discovering hints, following traces, and solving puzzles they try to escape within a restricted amount of time. The idea is routed in different game genres like point-and-click adventures, puzzle hunts, theme parks, and live-action role playing games. As the games scholar Scott Nicholson highlights in his first exploration of the phenomena (2015) these live-action team-based games offer a variety of fascinating insights into game and level design, player cultures, business models, and technologies. We would like to enrich the discussion by asking how these games could be played in a competitive tournament style – as a (e)sport.

Before we dive into the question of what aspects an escape room competition might involve, lets first tackle the question what makes a game a sport. By following Bernhard Suits definition of games, escape rooms are games as they involve a clear goal (escaping the room), a rule-based means of achieving the goal (solving puzzles) and a lusory attitude (the whole team agrees on pretending they are actually trapped). But not every game can be played as a sport. Suits (2003, 14) defines four components a game needs to address to fall into the category “sport”: “(1) a game of skill, (2) that the skill be physical, (3) that the game have a wide following, and (4) that the following achieve a certain level of stability.” When it comes to escape rooms, the sportiness is clearly given by the physical (and mental) skills involved along with the time pressure. However, each room is different, involves different rule sets and hardly any of them are played in a competitive mode or with a stable professional following.

So what elements would have to be adressed to make playing an escape room a competitive sport?

1. Comparability
“Well, my team made the Mind Boggling Escape Room in Vienna in 35 minutes and 36 seconds, and you?” “We did Munich Hold’em in 40 minutes and 20 seconds”. Which team is better? We will never know because the two rooms are completely different game spaces and involve different analytic, social, and visual puzzles. If you would want to make escape rooms competitive they would have to be comparable in terms of the teams starting conditions, team size, rules, and goals. Some escape rooms already have two teams compete simultaneously in two identical rooms or multiple teams within a single room. However, after wining your challenge the competitiveness has reached its end. The room can’t be replayed and no leagues and following exist.

2. Scalability
So let’s say team A was better in solving the room than team B. Good for them – but beside the team members of the room or maybe the local highscore-list it is impossible to compare the success on a global basis. To allow players to compete on a global level, exactly the same room would have to be replicated at different venues world-wide and allow a comparison on a global basis, or different rooms would have to the evaluated in terms of their difficulty level with a well defined assessment system (like f.e. in golf). Also, the question arises how one could be assured no cheating is involved, in particular based on the fact that the core activity in escape rooms is solving puzzles.

3. Cheat-Proof
When you pay to play an escape room there is no real benefit of cheating and already knowing all the solutions. The moment escaping the room gets competitive that situation changes! So how could you prevent teams from cheating and whistle-blowing the solutions of the challenges to competing teams? One way to go, would be changing the puzzles based on a randomized system. Thereby still allowing the comparability might get tricky. Another way would be to run the rooms simultaneously, so nobody ever had the chance to communicate the results to another team. Alternatively, people could already know what the puzzles are, but the way to solve them changes and the skill involved focuses on skills other than solving the puzzles themselves. Cheating is indeed a tricky problem when we are thinking about the competitiveness of escape rooms.

4. Feasibility
Let’s say someone runs a number of identical escape rooms at different venues at the same time and teams compete in getting out of the room the fasters with the least hints taken. The quality of an escape room strongly depends on its game design and physical environment. Many escape rooms take weeks or month to built and creating the same room at many different venues does not seam practical because of the enormous costs and time spent. In particular if the rooms would have to played simultaneously, this option does not seam feasible. The solution to this problem could be the usage of technology. Players could compete in a semi-virtual challenge – like an eSport – or technological devises are used, that replace an extensively designed physical room. It stays questionable how the key elements of team-communication, physical discovery and exploration will work within virtual settings.

5. Stability
A final interesting restriction – if we follow Suits definition – would be the stability of competitive escape room playing. If solving escape rooms in a competitive mode should ever get a sport, the conditions would have to reach a level in which teams want to improve their skills and compete on a local and global level.

We followed the question how games as sports offer a broader cultural momentum before (Consalvo, Stein & Mitgutsch 2013). However, the question arises, why would one would even want to play an escape room competitively? Without wanting to close this question, it could be argued, that escape room sports could offer a novel ground to reach from a local and business-driven sector to a broader and global exploration of adventure game challenges. One of the design challenges our first Escape Room Game Jam will address is the exploration potentials for scalability and feasibility of escape room challenges.

Consalvo, M. / Mitgutsch, K. / Stein, A. (Eds.). (2013) Sports Video Games. NY: Routledge

Nicholson, S. (2015). Peeking behind the locked door: A survey of escape room facilities. White Paper available at http://scottnicholson.com/pubs/erfacwhite.pdf

Suits, B. (2007). The elements of sport. In: Morgan, W. J. (Ed.) (2007). Ethics in sport (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. 9-19

I am the founder of Playful Solutions and an Affiliate Researcher at the MIT GAME LAB at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In addition to my work as a game design consultant and coach, I lecture at the University of Fine Arts Vienna.

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