Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Escape Room Games & Prof. Maryam Mithlemirth's missing artifact

So it all started when our family came across an Escape room on Main St Unionville, Ontario called Xscaper Arts.

Two teams placed in separate rooms but connected by walkie talkie, searching for totems from the movie 'Inception.' We didn't make it, but it didn't matter, it was fun, competitive and immersive.

Escape room attractions debuted in Asia. They test a team of players to escape a locked room or solve a mystery based on a theme (in our case the movie Inception). They then have to solve a number of puzzles within a time limit to win.

Turns out the Greater Toronto Area is the epicentre of Escape rooms in North America, with lots to choose from. Just check out reviewers like this and this for your type of experience.

Anyway my teacher spidey senses told me there was more to this gig than entertainment. Recently educators of all types have been tapping into the collaborative, competitive and teachable possibilities of Escape rooms. Breakout Edu is a hugely popular provider of open source educational escape games for the classroom. There is even a professor of analogue gaming who has written research papers on Escape rooms, game based learning and meaningful gamification.

As a community educator this opportunity was too good to let go of. I decided to take a risk (hello 21st century learning) and create a Muslim heritage escape room at an annual Muslim women's conference called Being ME.

With my trusty minions, extended family and sympathetic in laws, we went through the design thinking process.

It was 4 months of ideation, iterations, reiterations, beta testing (and beti testing).

I examined many of Breakout edu's beta games, shared by many generous educators.

Oh and I visited multiple escape rooms including the cheap and cheerful esc-it rooms, as well as more high end experiences like Looking Glass adventures or Freeing Canada Station. This was purely to get a sense of user experience and content delivery (purely for research of course).

I found that all the escape games and rooms I visited reinforced the importance of collaboration and problem solving. Great for school kids and corporate teams. However it was important to me that the content of the game be a cohesive lesson plan as well. Some educational escape games are experience rich, but content light. Teachers, decide what you want out of your game! I realized that the content needs to be very specific, in a sequential story format that is read/ accessed often enough by the players for it to stick, somewhat.

Being a Muslim heritage escape room, the backstory was that the professor had a rare biography of the scholar Aisha bint Abi Bakr. The puzzles were all connected to story cards that sequentially related the Tayammum story, an incident from Aisha's life.

My goal was for players to really get a handle on this story while hunting for the artifact. I made sure that while the story was sequential, the puzzles could be solved out of sequence by any player at any time. I also levelled the playing field by making sure that nobody needed prior knowledge of the story to solve the game.We had to make sure the puzzles could be easily reset and repeated by our volunteers as multiple players would be attempting the game every 45 minutes.

We staged the professor's apartment in a bazaar booth, figured how to put a roof on top of it and found middle eastern furnishings that would do History Professor Maryam Mithlemirth proud. After all it was her apartment, she was away on a speaking tour and the History bandits were on the loose.

On game day players were given a 30 minute time limit. They had to go through the Professor's apartment to solve puzzles figuring out lock combinations, word puzzles, logic problems, even Quran references.

It was an exhausting but exhilarating day, our fantastic volunteers had to reset the room accurately at least 8 frantic times for as many teams.

The players were kids, teens, moms, students, even one of the conference speakers.They all left rave reviews and shared what they learned about themselves and about the Tayammum story, a significant moment in Islamic history with lots of lessons.

More recently, I created a mini 'escape game' icebreaker activity for community events like a fundraiser or volunteer appreciation. In this case the attendees are not locked in a room but have one puzzle per table that each table needs to solve in 5 minutes. My most recent one was about connecting problem solving and collaboration to faith based education.

Once the game is over, it's not game over, but the debrief.

Whether it's a 5 minute game or a 30-minute game one of the most important parts of the game is the debrief. Here you are kind of assessing the audience. You ask them what did they feel, what did they enjoy, what did they learn? This part of the experience can be empowering because they get to walk through the puzzles and share how they felt.

Some people might feel like, well not smart. But you can focus on how working together, taking risks and experiencing failure can make us stronger for that next challenge round the corner.

And along the way they've learned important content that connects them back to their heritage.

Game on!