“Is this part of it?” one kid asks me. He’s holding up a clock that I had propped up in a corner of our program room, one of several dozen random (or, seemingly random) objects scattered on tables, on countertops, and even on the floor.
I’m careful with my poker face. “I don’t know. Is it?” I throw back at him. He looks at it again, then puts it aside on the table marked “Important Things.”
He knows if he really needs help, I’ll give it to him. But instead, he figures it out on his own a few minutes later (as it turns out, the time on the clock is also the combination to a lock across the room). And the group gets way more excited about it, because they crack it all on their own.
A bunch of objects scattered around – some significant, some not – may not sound like your typical library program. But this type of event has quickly become one of the most popular library programs int he U.S. It’s called an escape room, and the one we did for the teens his July was by far our most popular teen program of Summer Reading. In fact, the gears are already turning in my head, determining when and how I’m going to do the next one.
Ten years ago, no one had ever heard of an escape room. Now, there are almost 3,000 permanent escape rooms around the world. And this number doesn’t include the pop-up escape rooms that can be found at conferences and in public libraries. One can easily fall down a rabbit hole on Pinterest looking at suggestions on how to set up an escape room for your friends in the privacy of your own home. Permanent escape rooms create elaborate and detailed adventures tailored to different themes and skill levels, and can cost $30-50 per person (or more) for an hour-long event. They are hugely popular, and public libraries, as they usually do, are trying to capture the zeitgeist in their program offerings.
The concept of the escape room – although it has elements of medieval hedge mazes and role-playing games – can be traced directly back to video games based on the same concept: you’re in a room, and you have to solve a mystery to get out. The first of these games, Behind Closed Doors, was released in 1988, when PC games were still text-only. The escape room concept became truly popular, though, as a result of a 2004 Japanese video game called Crimson Room. From here, real world escape rooms were born, starting in Japan but then spreading into Europe and the U.S., with the first American company opening in 2013 in Seattle (probably not coincidentally in the same city where the first Starbucks opened).
The concept is deceptively simple. The room is the framework, and wraps the mystery up into a nice package while also providing the challenge: the clues almost always lead you to a key that allows you to “escape the room” (hence the name). But you’re surrounded by clues or potential clues, and it’s up to you to work your way through all the puzzles to get to the end. So the room is both the problem and the solution at the same time. Themes vary from the classic Private Eye mystery to the X-Files to Ancient Greece. The puzzled are generally organized so that no specific knowledge is needed. You need only bring your puzzle-solving skills to the table.
But most importantly, you’re working against a timer to solve the mystery. The adrenaline rush of racing to finish in time is a huge aspect of the appeal. To this we can add the immersive experience created by all of these themed adventures. Rooms set in specific time periods put huge effort into verisimilitude, and even fanciful rooms set in fictional worlds aim to include so much detail that players feel like they’ve stepped onto the Holodeck (apologies to non-Star Trek fans: this would be the computerized room that whisks you into any scenario, place, or story you can think of). In other words, it is a perfect pairing for libraries, where readers come to find the next book that will throw them into a new immersive fictional (or nonfictional, for that matter) experience.
Our escape room registration filled up several days before the event. We opened more slots, and it immediately filled again. The kids came ready to solve, and every group managed to finish nicely within the 30-minute time limit. The beauty of a program like this is that the core elements will remain the same: locks, invisible ink, objects tucked into secret places, messages to decode. But each time they can be rearranged and done with a different theme so that the same set of participants can return and get something totally new. This is what has made escape rooms so accessible and universally popular.
This summer was the library’s first attempt at an escape room, but it was so popular and fun that we’ve got one planned for adults in September. So, if this sounds interesting to you, keep an eye on our program schedule, like us on Facebook and Instagram @anbllibrary, and check the website regularly. And be sure to register early!