Escape rooms are live interactive games where players are locked in a room and must solve puzzles to find a key and escape. The idea is that players must escape before a time limit order to ‘survive’ and the rooms are often given themes such as ‘Egyptian Tomb’ or ‘Prison Cell’ which affect the decoration of the environment as well as the puzzles. The rooms sometimes include a narrative and even live actors to make them more immersive and exciting.
STEM escape rooms are similar to these games but rather than mainly focusing on abstract puzzles, they also include problems based on real STEM topics and are educational. Players can be introduced to advanced STEM concepts through this engaging format and can role-play as a scientist. The games themselves can be hosted anywhere it is possible to set up a room, including schools, HEI’s, research institutes, science centers, and festivals. The theme of the room is also flexible and there is potential for any STEM topic to be covered.
There are three main objectives to STEM Escape Rooms as follows:
- To introduce players to complex STEM topics in an engaging environment that encourages them to challenge themselves
- To increase confidence in players ability to understand science
- To increase players interest in science and science-themed events
However if these games are hosted at research centres or HEI’s, they can also serve the purpose of familiarising other publics with such institutions and potentially increase the engagement of the local community and the uptake of STEM students to the affiliated university.
General Structure: Single Event
From the players perspective, STEM Escape Rooms operate as single, self-contained events, during which they participate in the game. How many of these games are run, in what frequency and where however, can be adapted to the desires of the organisers.
Main Event Duration: Somewhat flexible but generally 1hr 15 minutes
Project Duration: Flexible
Often, escape room sessions will last 1 hour 15 minutes, with 1-hour playtime and 15 minutes allowed for staff to reset the room. This duration is suitable as it is long enough for players to become fully engaged and complete a number of puzzles but also short enough that they don’t suffer mental burnout. These times can be adjusted to cater to the needs of your event or your target audience, however, it is recommended the game be play-tested beforehand to avoid any issues.
The duration of the project itself is completely flexible. It may be that you only need to host a series of games on one day, such as at a festival or at regular intervals during a specific time period, such as hosting it at various schools during semester time. The number of events and frequency are very adaptable to the needs of your project.
2.1 Staff & Volunteers
Preparation of the Escape Rooms will form a large portion of the work. To design the game itself you will need to develop a narrative, create STEM-based puzzles and procure props and items for set dressing. You may choose to recruit a professional writer and set designer, or do these things yourself depending on your budget, resources, and vision for the event. In particular, when designing the puzzles, you may need someone with the correct STEM background for your chosen topic to either produce the puzzles themselves or act as a consultant.
Once the rooms are created you may need to market them depending on your type of event, and for this, you might want to enlist the help of graphic designers and writers to produce promotional materials as well as a communications officer to disseminate this through social media, print media and any other channels at your disposal. You will also need someone to coordinate with players, answering their queries, and reserving time slots for players to play the game.
On the date of the event itself, you will need someone at the registration desk to greet players, explain the rules, and continue booking any available time slots. If you require it, you may have actors within each room running the games and you will need staff members on hand to reset rooms in between players. You might ask your actors to reset their own rooms if you are short-handed for staff. Staggering the games so they don’t generally end around the same time will also help reduce busy periods where more staff members will be required.
- Volunteer Requirements: Core organising team only (unless you are running a large number of games at once).
2.2 Venue Hire
Capacity: 4-10 people
The venue will largely depend on the vision for your game and the aims of the project but generally, you will need at least one room to host the games in. This room should be accessible a day before the events will run and you might need permission for decoration (e.g. hanging of posters, black sheets, etc). If you are hosting it at your own organisation or with a partner, such as a school, then there will likely be no venue costs to consider. If hosting at a commercial organisation (such as a science centre) or larger event (such as a festival) you may be able to negotiate a reduced if not negated venue cost in lieu of the foot traffic you will be providing. The size and layout of the room will depend on the concept of your game but generally, allowing a capacity of at least 4-6 people is recommended as players like to take part in groups.
2.3 Partner Institutions
Partner Institutions: Not required but sometimes recommended
If you require partnership will again depend on the aims of your project. If you are targeting secondary school students, for example, you might wish to partner with one or even a number of schools that can host your event and ensure access to your target audience. Essentially, if you are not hosting the event within your own buildings you will likely need to partner with a venue. Another potential partner may be an amateur or student dramatics society who can provide actors for your games if relevant to your concept.
Project Budget: 0 – 5000€ (flexible)
The following budget is an estimate based on a small number of events being run in-house or with a partner institution. The budget is indicative only as it will depend on the scale of the events, the required materials and how much external personnel will be required.
- Personnel Fees (Section 2.1) €0 – €2,000
- Venue Hire (Section 2.2) €0 – €200 per room, per day
- Marketing (Section 3.2) €0 – €1,000
- Materials (Section 4.4) €0 – €1,000
- Other (Section 4.5)
As described above, it is highly possible to run these events with virtually no budget if the tasks are conducted in-house or with volunteers, the games are hosted within a building you already have access to and uses materials you can prepare for free or at a low cost. Most of the project hours will be devoted to designing the game, the puzzles, and narrative and sourcing the materials. As an estimate, approximately 80 hours will be needed to prepare a 1-hour game, and this will likely be shared between different individuals completing different tasks. Generally, the more elaborate and immersive the experience, the more materials will be required and the larger the budget.
3.1 Target Audience
Target Audience: Aged 7 and above.
The concept of an escape room might not be well understood by very young children. Other than this, they can be adapted to any age group or educational level. In our experience, puzzles based on even university level science can be completed by those aged 12 and above, as long as the puzzle is well designed. To achieve this, it’s important that the key to solving the puzzles involves identifying patterns and being able to match information rather than understanding the complexities behind it. For example, players might need to find a correct ‘DNA gel’ and analyse it. A post-it might be left on the desk that reads ‘1. Order primers, 2. Run DNA gel’. By matching the dates the correct primers were delivered with the date the DNA gel was made, the correct gel can be determined. The players then only need to understand where to look for a visible band to see if the DNA is present and this could be hidden in lab notes on the desk. Through the puzzle, players learn the basics of how we test for DNA and even how to analyse a gel without needing to understand the complexities of PCR or gel electrophoresis.
If events are tied to a particular partner, then they may not need to be marketed (e.g. partnering with a school) or it’s possible the partner will do the majority of the marketing on your behalf (e.g. a science centre or festival). Outside of this, it’s recommended to use a marketing strategy appropriate to your age-group, such as Instagram and Twitter for aged 16 under, Facebook and Twitter for aged over 16 and print media for aged 65+. It is recommended to hire a graphic designer for visuals that will make your game look appealing and worth attending.
3.3 Dialogic Strategy
STEM escape rooms shift communication from one that is didactic to one that is inquiry-based. The players themselves are the ones seeking knowledge in order to achieve their goals. This makes the process far more engaging and memorable, especially when combined with an immersive environment and narrative. If the game is well designed, no prior scientific knowledge need be required and therefore it is a highly inclusive event.
4.1 Project Timeline
An example timeline is shown below:
- 10 weeks prior: Initial meeting to decide overarching concept. Work on skeletal draft begins.
- 8 weeks prior:Draft of story, puzzle order / type is decided. Evaluation strategy confirmed.
- 8 weeks prior:Dates and venues are confirmed. Begin work on puzzles and sourcing decor.
- 6 weeks prior:Deadline for script to be ready and sent to actors (if applicable).
- 1 month prior:Deadline for puzzles to be ready in draft stage and tested.
- 1 month prior:Deadline for PR materials. Marketing begins
- 1-2 weeks prior: Deadline for puzzle physical props to be ready.
- 1-2 weeks prior: Play-tests / rehearsals with actors followed by tweaking of game design.
- 2 days prior: Deadline for all decorative materials to be acquired.
- 1 day prior: Decoration and set-up of room including play-testing / rehearsals for actors.
- 1 day prior: Evaluation materials are prepared.
- Date of event: Game sessions and evaluation.
- Post-event: Evaluation analysis.
- Project manager – to oversee the project, liaise with and organise staff, book venues and manage the budget.
- Scriptwriter – to design the background story and produce a script (e.g. actors lines, endings etc.)
- Game developers – to design the overall structure of the game, how and when each puzzle can be accessed and so on. They must also design the individual puzzles and may need a specialist background in the relevant topic.
- Set-designer – to design the environment and source relevant materials to decorate the room.
- Graphic designer – to produce PR materials and any props that need to be created digitally.
- Videographer – to produce PR materials and any videos required for the game.
- Communications assistant – to market the event through social media and other accessible channels. To coordinate bookings with players.
- Actors – if the game will involve actors.
- Assistants – to help set up the room, run the registration desk and reset rooms in between games.
- Evaluation lead – to design and run your evaluation strategy.
- Physical props for puzzles
- Other props / decorative materials to create an immersive, themed environment
- Costumes for actors
- Laminated instructions for players to read
- Videos for introduction, in-game story, or endings if applicable
- Equipment for effects – e.g. fog machine, bluetooth speaker
- Camera equipment and backdrop for photographs
- Signs for photographs (E.g. ‘I survived!’)
- Evaluation materials
4.2 Single Event Structure
Player: Players arrive and are given instructions for the game. If any pre-evaluation is required this might be completed now. Players may also experience an introduction to the story through a video or short, scripted greeting from an actor. They then enter the room and have a set amount of time to solve all the puzzles. Once all the puzzles are complete / the time is up, they leave the room and are de-briefed. They may be given a personalised ending based on the puzzles they managed to solve and / or the choices they made during the game. They are often offered a photograph with an ‘I survived!’ or ‘I almost survived!’ sign. If any post-evaluation is required this is completed now.
Staff: There will likely be multiple games running on the same day and even multiple rooms running at once. Each day event will therefore require:
Initial set-up of the registration desk, checking of rooms, ensuring actors have arrived etc.
Greeting of players and running through introduction (see above).
Staff notes the time each group of players enter a room.
If there are multiple rooms, entry is staggered (E.g. group 1 at 12:00, group 2 at 12:15) to ensure the group’s time does not run out at the same time as another game.
If time runs out on any room, staff must ‘trigger’ an ending. This could involve playing something remotely via a bluetooth speaker or contacting the actor to tell them to perform the ending sequence.
Running through debrief with players (see above).
Staff / actors reset the room for the next group.
The above cycle continues until the end of the day, when staff pack up. If this is the last event date, rooms are stripped and returned to normal.
4.3 Personnel roles
Required personnel are as follows:
As mentioned before, the size of your team can depend on the resources you have available and your budget. With a smaller budget, it is definitely possible that one member of staff may fulfill two or more of the above roles.
Other than the room your game runs in it’s likely you will need:
4.5 Other Logistics
It is possible to run escape rooms that involve more than one room per game. For example players start in one room, complete a puzzle and move into another room. This will require either adjacent rooms separated by one locked door, or will mean players will need to exit and enter a new room. If the latter it may be necessary to recruit actors to ensure players head to the correct rooms and have staff on hand to prevent players bumping into other groups.
Escape rooms are not just appealing to those already interested in science and therefore can draw people who normally wouldn’t come to a science-themed event. If the puzzles are well designed, they do not require scientific knowledge but instead target problem-solving and critical thinking skills. This means that players who have no scientific background are often just as prepared for the game as those with a degree in a STEM field! In this accessible environment, it is less intimidating for players to push themselves and get involved with advanced scientific concepts. Players understand they are here to attempt a challenge and that it will be difficult at first. The fact they are able to attempt the challenge as a team also reduces the intimidation level. Being able to complete some of these puzzles, despite them looking quite complex at first glance, can be an exhilarating experience. Players leave with a sense of satisfaction in their abilities and newfound confidence. This may change perspectives of whether science-themed events are relevant to them and may encourage them to attend more events in future.
Due to the short nature of the activity, a pre and post-evaluation may not be advisable, unless the pre-evaluation can be taken a while before the event takes place (e.g. when players book their time-slot). You might be interested in who is attending the event, how different demographics fare at the game, how the game might change attitudes and /or how much the players have learned from the event.
Although the format of the escape room can take many forms, here are some useful reading materials to help design your game: