Carman Neustaedter, second from right, and his graduate students successfully collaborated to escape a haunted cabin.

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Spooky escape rooms foster team-building

October 29, 2015
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By Diane Luckow

Last year, professor Carman Neustaedter and five of his graduate students spent 45 minutes locked in a dimly lit haunted cabin, feverishly working together to find a way out.

In fact, the haunted cabin was actually an “escape room”. It’s one of several in the Lower Mainland that are attracting families, friends and corporate teams to pit their wits against the clock to solve puzzles that will help them escape the locked room before their time runs out.

“It’s a new genre of game that is becoming popular around the world,” explains Neustaedter, a professor of human-computer interaction in SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology (SIAT).

“It evolved out of online escape rooms where an avatar character tries to escape by solving on-screen puzzles. Now, it has been adapted to physical locked rooms that people go into with others.”

They must leave all of their possessions outside the room, and solve puzzles using only what they find in the room.

With themes like Zombie Apocalypse, Castle Secrets, Trapped in Time and Spaceship Mysteries, these escape rooms are also attracting corporate groups interested in building team morale and bringing their collaborative abilities to the next level.

But Neustaedter wondered whether there was any evidence that escape rooms can actually deliver such results. That’s why he and SIAT undergraduate student Henry Lo spent some time last summer at Time Escape in Richmond, B.C. exploring how people collaborate in these rooms.

“We found the rooms were very good at teaching and supporting different styles of collaboration—working in small groups, working individually and in parallel, and in tightly and loosely coupled collaboration. But sometimes the styles of collaboration don’t always match what might happen outside of an escape room.”

That’s because the escape rooms, to match their spooky themes, are quite dark. This prevents team members from seeing what the others are doing and maintaining an awareness of their activities, he says.

“Escape rooms end up emphasizing verbal communication skills rather than non-verbal communication. So a team might be able to strengthen the way they share their ideas with others verbally. The tight time restrictions force people to get their thoughts out quickly,” he says.

What’s more, graduate student Rui Pan is now working with him to plan out a “distributed” escape-room model for long-distance couples.

This involves one partner in an escape room connecting wirelessly via Skype, for example, to the other partner outside of the room or across the world who tries to help.

“It would be beneficial for people who live apart—it’s an opportunity to work on their communications skills and collaborate as a couple to escape the room,” says Neustaedter.

Whether or not escape rooms build collaboration, they do deliver a buzz of satisfaction for those who manage to escape in time.

Neustaedter and his team successfully solved the puzzles to escape the haunted cabin with just 10 seconds to spare. 

“That was the biggest morale booster and team relationship-builder,” he says. “We all pulled together to do it.”

Neustaedter’s observational study was funded through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.