An academic approach to exit games

scholarshipOne of the most interesting developments in the world of exit games over the last few months has been the scholarly investigation undertaken, as discussed, by Dr. Scott Nicholson, a Professor at Syracuse University in New York state. Dr. Nicholson has a long history in research with a focus (among others!) into different forms of play in the context of informal learning spaces such as libraries.

Late last year he launched a survey of exit game facilities, discussing the thinking behind his survey at his site Escape Enthusiasts. This has developed into a Google Group for discussion of the genre, with a counterpart Facebook group as well. The highlight has been publication of (at least an early version of) the white paper arising from the survey, which gets this site’s highest recommendation as a must-read for business owners and players who want to see behind the scenes.

One particular highlight of the white paper is the very neat way that it handles the claim that exit games date back to Silicon Valley in 2006. Additionally, it presents remarkably comparable prior art dating back at least a decade further to (as discussed) a series of games run at the LARP-themed International Fantasy Gaming Society’s “Once Upon A Con” events, which created a series of temporary rooms through hanging up tarpaulins and challenged teams to make their way through within time limits. It’s always an exciting possibility that there are other, similar games from decades ago that time has forgotten and that might present themselves again some day.

The demographic information that the white paper presents is fascinating, with the most robust attempt yet to compare self-reported practices in exit games around the world, with the best corpus of data yet collected from English-speaking Asia, as well as Australia, Europe and the Americas. This will inspire and inform those looking to set up their own new business, as well as those looking to develop their existing one. There’s plenty of information collected, too, about what might be found inside these rooms as well as who might be playing them, and about what just might be possible and practicable inside a room.

This site has always deliberately erred on the side of being relatively liberal in its focus with discussion of near-topic games such as True Dungeon, but did so on a vague sense of it being hand-wavily interesting. The white paper takes the scholarly approach that these things are not just interesting, but they are relevant because they have identifiable influence, even if at a remove or two, on the way in which the world knows exit games today and how it might know exit games in the years to come. Six different influences are identified and it takes a real breadth of ludic knowledge to pull them all together.

Jumping from the start to the end, the notion in the white paper that most excited this site is the counterpart way that exit games are put in context as a subset of live-action adventures. Look at it another way: if you look up an exit game on TripAdvisor, it’ll be ranked in the context of “Fun Activities and Games”, and it’ll compete against – for instance – paintball, go-karting, casinos, laser tag and soft play. Is this a rag-bag assortment or are there lessons to be learned for exit games from some of them? Not so much from casinos and probably only tangentially (in the briefing-with-instructions, activity, debriefing schedule) from go-karting – but, as for the others, maybe there’s more in common than you think. If people like laser tag because they want to be inside a video game like Halo, perhaps they like exit games because they want to be inside a video game like Myst.

This site enjoys reading about live-action adventures, though sometimes hiding behind the sofa. This site isn’t going to become a live-action adventure blog, though. (Laser tag, although it will always be cool, is moving in a direction that this site does not appreciate so much; it’s becoming much less Half-Life and much more Call of Duty. No thanks.) Additionally, this site has always considered interactive theatre to be on the border of its remit, with playable theatre (if that’s a term anybody else uses, noting the many meanings of the word “play”…) definitely on-topic.

Putting it all together, this site loves puzzle adventures; they might involve being in a room, they might involve being in a puzzle hunt (whether online or in person), they might involve being part of a competition. However, it’s much easier for a puzzle competition to feel like an adventure in your head if there is some structure, context and persistence to them, rather than just being one-off tests – for instance, the adventure of being part of a team and helping your team advance through your progress. If this breadth of approach isn’t to your taste, other blogs are available. You should start your own; this site would link to it!

Looking forwards, Dr. Nicholson will be the keynote speaker at an upcoming “escape room Game Jam” held at MIT in greater Boston. Teams will have (nearly) 48 hours to “create puzzles and games to be played within a pop-up escape room (…) based around a moment in an upcoming film“. (It’s not clear which film; a film will be screened at the start of the event, so that would seem likely to be the inspiration.) Intriguingly, this is being held in association with Red Bull and winning participants get an expenses-paid trip to Comic-Con 2016. Not bad! The event has sold out, but will be filmed and the material generated will be made available under a Creative Commons licence.

Perhaps, in time, the world at large might get to play the winning, or a composite, pop-up exit game when the film gets a wider release; it wouldn’t be the first film to have a pop-up exit game associated with it – the one associated with The Purge: Breakout showed what might be possible. It’ll be extremely interesting to see if anything ever develops as a consequence of this Game Jam and to follow additional developments as they arise.

Exit games have taken off so rapidly that the world can hope to attract attention from all sorts of different sources and to be intepreted in all sorts of different ways. The exit game world should be very grateful to have someone who has professional academic expertise casting an eye over it, as well as us amateurs; that might sound dismissive, but it’s intended as a compliment – remember, an amateur is someone who does something for the love of it.

(Unrelatedly, if you haven’t done so already, please would you consider filling out this site’s survey? Thank you!)

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