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Applying Videogame Theory to Escape Rooms : the Definition of a "Game"

by Alastair Aitchison on 08/13/19 10:33:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Escape Rooms (ER), real-life games in which a team of players must co-operate to solve a series of mental and physical puzzles to achieve some objective, have exploded in popularity in recent years, with some sources describing them as “one of the fastest-growing entertainment trends since the rise of cinema”.

In one respect, Escape Rooms can be considered the very antithesis of videogames: in a videogame, players typically assume the role of a virtual avatar, their control over which is limited to the range of actions allowed within the game code, abstracted through a keyboard or joystick input, and mediated by a screen interface. Escape room players, in contrast, are physically immersed in and must interact with a real, tangible playspace - escape room puzzles not only rely on visual and audio sensation, but often require touch, smell, or manipulation of physical objects and contraptions - the sensory feedback loop is real and immediate, and players are given a greater sense of presence than any VR headset will ever offer. ER players may choose to assume the role of a treasure hunter, a secret agent, or a detective, but they project their own self into those roles, and the actions they choose to carry out are limited only by the laws of nature and their own physical ability - they are not limited by a designer’s prescribed ruleset or the implementation of an in-game physics engine.

"Train conductors cabin" interior for mobile escape room by Crux Scenica. Used with Permission.

("Train conductor's cabin" mobile escape room by Crux Scenica. Image used with permission.)

While psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists have studied the cultural significance of games throughout history, much of the recent academic research in the field of game studies, including attempts to define the properties of a game, have been mainly concerned only with computer games. In this article, I’ll consider some well-cited academic definitions of what it means to “play a game”, with particular respect to whether they can also be applied to this new medium of ER games.

 

1953 - Wittgenstein

In Philosophical Investigations (1953), Ludwig Wittgenstein asserted that it is not possible to formulate a single definition of what constitutes a "game"; while there are features commonly found in many games (e.g. turn-taking, chance, skill, competition), there is no one defining feature found in all games.

Instead, he used games to illustrate "family resemblances" - whereby a concept cannot be rigidly defined, but can only be observed as a network of similarities and common traits shared between members of a group. So, while it is easy to recognise and give examples of things that are games, we cannot define, in the abstract, exactly what it is that makes them so.

Wittgenstein's comments were concerned more with the construct and confines of language than those of games specifically, but it’s an interesting example for game developers to consider: what are those resemblances and elements that connect the broad family of gaming experiences that exist: from VR to ER, card games to text adventures, LARPing to parlour games, and FPSs to casual mobile games, say? And where do we draw the line at which these experiences stop being games, and turn into something else?

  • If you are led through an escape room game by a gamesmaster in character, does that turn it into immersive theatre?
  • If an escape room contains nothing other than Sudoku puzzles and locked boxes, is that still a game, or just a series of puzzles?
  • What about an escape room in which you are guaranteed to escape (or, perhaps, guaranteed to fail), and no decisions the players make influence the outcome? Is there still a game to be played, or is it just an experience?
  • Do games have to be purely for entertainment, or can they have a serious message? If you enjoy playing the game but your teammate does not, then is it a game for you and not for them?

By understanding their similarities, and considering what differentiates games from theatre, or art, say, we can explore those experiences currently on the edge of escape rooms, and where future trends might take us.

 

1938 - Huizinga

Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga summarised the characteristics of play in Homo Ludens as follows (first published in Dutch in 1938 and then translated into English in 1955):

“..a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious,’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means.”

Huizinga’s definition was penned some 70 years prior to the first escape room being launched (by SCRAP corporation in Japan, 2007), yet it retains a surprising amount of veracity and detail relevant to an ER experience. It is particularly interesting to note the significance it places on players of a game becoming immersed and absorbed within a particular time and space, and how games promote the formation of social groupings; self-dubbed escape room “enthusiasts” (of which there are currently 17,000 in one Facebook group alone) often participate with a regular team, under a constant teamname, and follow certain rituals such as celebrating particular gaming milestones (e.g. playing their 100th room) with “escake”. Many escape room players have made friends, and some their life partners, through shared love of the game.

 

1958 - Caillois

In Les Jeux et Les Hommes (1958), French sociologist Roger Caillois defined a game as an activity that had the following six characteristics:

  • free: participation is voluntary
  • separate (from the ordinary routine of life): it takes place in its own time and place
  • uncertain: the outcome is not pre-determined
  • non-productive: participation does not accomplish anything useful
  • governed by rules: the activity has rules and behaviours that must be followed by players outside ordinary laws from everyday life
  • fictitious: players engage in make-believe of an imagined reality in which the activity takes place

Caillois kept much of Huzinga’s definition, including retaining the need for a game to have voluntary participation within an established set of rules, separate from the ordinary routine of life, and to achieve no obvious productive gain. 

One notable addition in Caillois’ definition is that the outcome of a game must be uncertain. This is relevant to escape rooms, in which teams have a specific objective to achieve (e.g. escape the room, retrieve the diamond, stop the virus outbreak), but are not always successful in doing so - the outcome is dependent on the players' performance within the room. Many Escape Room establishments publish their “escape rate” - the percentage of teams that successfully complete the objective - as a measure of the room’s difficulty, and figures are commonly given as anywhere between 20% - 80%.

There are several escape rooms in which players are guided in order to progress - sometimes this takes the form of a gamesmaster (normally in character) in the room, or hints or puzzle solutions being issued by a clue delivery system such as on a TV screen. Occasionally, entire puzzles may be solved remotely from a control room without the players' input. While this may help players who are stuck on a puzzle, many players dislike unsolicited hints and would prefer to be left alone to attempt to solve the puzzles at hand. Solving puzzles unaided gives a greater sense of satisfaction for those motivated by intellectual challenge, but may mean that the team fails to experience or complete the room overall. How players feel about this uncertainty in outcome may vary depending on their underlying player type

 

1965 - Mandelbaum

In his article Family Resemblances and Generalization Concerning the Arts (published in American Philosophical Quarterly, 1965), Maurice Mandelbaum suggested we think of a game as:

"an activity designed or modified to be of potentially absorbing non-practical interest to either participants of spectators"

While this description is certainly true of escape rooms, and videogames, it is far from a specific definition since the same could also be said to describe many crafts and hobby activities, music or art, singing in a choir, watching TV etc., and I therefore don't regard it as particularly useful.

 

1978 - Bernard Suits

In 1978, Bernard Suits, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo, wrote The Grasshopper: Games, Life and Utopia - a witty, narrative story as a direct response and rebuttal of Wittgenstein's assertion that games were undefinable. "Nonsense," says Bernard Suits:

"(Playing a game is) the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles"

This short single sentence effectively summarises and correlates with many previous definitions:

  • Suits' voluntary component of gameplay is shared with Huizinga's and Caillois's definitions that players must freely participate in the game
  • The fact that obstacles are unnecessary confirms the belief that games are unproductive
  • As with Caillois' definition, Suits highlights that players of a game attempt to achieve some objective, and this implies two further things: firstly, that players in a game must actively exert some sort of effort in pursuit of their goal, and secondly that those attempts are not always successful; players can fail.
  • The positioning of obstacles implies that players in a game have an intended path they are trying to follow - a known goal and the route to get there, along which obstacles are intentionally placed to prevent them. Players must desire whatever it is that lies beyond the obstacle in order to motivate them to overcome it. If players do not understand or value their goal, they will not recognise those obstacles.

 

1982 - Crawford

In The Art of Computer Game Design (1982), legendary veteran computer game designer Chris Crawford suggests that all games share four common factors:

  • representation (a closed formal system that subjectively represents a subset of reality)
  • interaction (games provide an interactive element, and it is a crucial factor in their appeal)
  • conflict (the player is actively pursuing some goal, and obstacles prevent her from easily achieving this goal)
  • safety (the results of a game are always less harsh than the situations the game models)

Of the four elements in Crawford's description, the inclusion of safety is perhaps the most interesting and relevant to Escape Rooms. Most Escape Room scenarios place the player in some high-risk dramatic predicament - escaping a serial killer's lair, defusing a bomb, deploying an antidote to a zombie outbreak - and the urgency of these situations is further heightened by the restricted time in which to complete the required objective (the very large majority of escape room experiences last only 1 hour). Many rooms use in-game actors and jump scares as commonly found in the U.S. haunt industry to heighten fear in the players and create an intense, visceral response, even though no harm will ever come to them (contrary to the belief of many first-time escape room players, you do not remain locked in the room if you fail to escape in time!)

 

1988 - Kelley

American philosopher David Kelley, in his book The Art of Reasoning, defines the concept "game" as:

"..a form of recreation constituted by a set of rules that specify an object to be attained and the permissable means of attaining it."

This definition could be considered rather limited in the context of many games yet, applied to escape rooms, it seems rather fitting. "An object to be attained" clearly describes the players' motivations in many escape room scenarios - discovering the antidote to a viral outbreak, retrieving the classified document from the secretive organisation, finding the incriminating evidence in the killer's lair, or, simply, escaping the room.

"Permissable means" in an escape room are not those actions defined in software code, as in a videogame, but rather permitted by the rules of the game as normally explained in a pre-game briefing (often including such rules as "Don't disassemble anything", "Don't attempt to lift anything heavier than a small box", "If you see an object with a yellow warning sticker on it, don't touch it", "Don't stick forks in electrical sockets"....). While acting within those rules, players are free to explore and discover how to tackle their objective.

 

1989 - Meier

Sid Meier is a veteran computer game designer and creator of the influential and hugely successful "Civilisation" series of games. At the Game Developer's Conference in 1989, he made the following statement, which has been subsequently cited and debated many times in the games community:

“A game is a series of interesting decisions”

As with Suits' definition, this short sentence is a surprisingly efficient expression of some fundamental ideas relevant to escape room games.

  • There are decisions that have to be made; so players have choices, and they have agency in controlling their experience in the game
  • Those decisions are interesting. An interesting decision implies that it’s not a trivial matter for players to always pick the correct choice - they must gather information about the scope and consequences of the choices available, and consider the results and impact of each course of action. Not every team will make the same choices, and as a result their experience will differ.

So, thinking specifically about escape rooms some questions that designers might want to consider are:

  • "What decision does the player have to make?" (in terms of the order in which they proceed through the areas of the room, the puzzles available to them, the methods of solving a puzzle)
  • "Does the player know what the choices available to them are?" (If players are getting stuck, are expressing "I can't see what I have to do!", or brute-forcing puzzles, it may be indicator that they have not been informed of the choices available)
  • "Is it a trivial matter to pick the 'best' choice?" (a good puzzle should generally present a mixture between the "A-ha!" moment of deducing the solution, and the mechanical process of then applying that solution)

 

Conclusion

While the recent trend in Escape Rooms may present games in a new medium, it's clear that the underlying elements of their gameplay share much in common with videogames and other sorts of games, and can be traced back to their shared ancestry in theatre, storytelling, and roleplaying - some of the oldest forms of human social interaction.

In this article, I've presented some of the leading definitions of games from a variety of sources over the last 80 years. While their inclusion or emphasis on particular factors may differ, they include many common elements, which I've attempted to illustrate with practical examples from escape rooms. It should be noted that this is not an exhaustive list - I have discarded some other definitions that I felt added no further value to the discussion.

The question "What is a game?" may seem rather theoretical and esoteric; however, I believe that considering such questions, together with studying the origins of escape room games and their relationships to other related forms of entertainment and art, encourages designers to push the boundaries of current ER gameplay, and provides an indication of possible future experiences.


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