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Escape Rooms and ‘5 Wits’: Using Immersive Adventure to Transpose Perceptions

(Editor’s Note: This is a guest post written by Sarah Bratt, an alumna of the School of Information Studies master’s degree program in Library and Information Science.) 

“Scholarship in action has never been so literal,” I thought as I crawled on my hands and knees from the throne room of Castle Drago, an interactive adventure game at 5 Wits at Destiny mall [Destiny USA, Syracuse, NY] where my team’s successful completion of a logic puzzle now had opened a hidden tunnel for us to scramble through.

Espionage and Pharaoh’s Tomb were also in the cards for our group, composed of Dr. Scott Nicholson’s Because Play Matters Game Lab and a troupe of Syracuse University iSchool and Newhouse faculty, students, and LIS alumni.

Escape Rooms and Real, Live, Humans?

In a recent interview with Newsweek, Dr. Nicholson lauded the physicality of immersion games, where players “engage face to face…” and “each member on a team has a time when they are able to be the hero.”

5 Wits founder Matt Duplessie shares a similar enthusiasm for analog gaming. In fact, the name ‘5 Wits’ refers not to the number of founders, as commonly believed, but to the number of senses required to navigate through immersion games.

It’s a shout-out to the value of ditching “the glowing rectangle,” as Duplessie put it. Immersion allows participants to qualitatively experience a change in their perception of the world by “transposing the environment in a series of timed challenges.”

Easter Eggs and Repeat Customers

Dr. Nicholson arranged a lively sit-down conversation with Frank Cerio, 5 Wits director of operations, so we could learn about escape rooms and explore potential research and educational partnerships.

In our chat with Mr. Cerio, we learned that approximately 40% of players are return customers, who return to play different games. Yet, there are about a quarter who come back and play the same game.

The same game? Why? Wouldn’t repetitive play be redundant and utterly unchallenging, given you’d completed the tasks before?

As it turns out, 5 Wits can count on cashing in on return players. Opportunities to level up to achieve higher scores (think laser tag), experience the “B variation,” and discover “easter eggs” (tricks and hidden additions within the game) is highly motivating, and opens the wallets of visitors to Destiny.

The software and AI (artificial intelligence) systems are advanced at 5 Wits, especially compared to traditional escape rooms, which operate and attract customers based on simplicity of design and intellectual challenge.

Design Challenges

Adventure design is tricky. Designers must create game mechanisms that appeal to a diversity and high volume of people. This allows for more through-put of players per challenge and makes challenges accessible almost universally, for all ages, intelligences, and even for the color-blind.

You can imagine identifying themes that resonate with a diversity of audiences, from sticky-fingered girl scouts and older adults to corporate training groups, is a tough gauntlet for immersion game designers to face. Anticipating cheaters and trouble-shooting AI and software glitches on-the-go are other day-to-day jobs of a 5 Wits design team.

New Partnerships and Applications

Last, the application of immersion is exciting for the iSchool at Syracuse University.

For example, using immersion to induce mental states for researchers at Newhouse’s M.I.N.D. lab, and  taking advantage of the data generated by game play and 5 Wits operations, are areas ripe for future partnerships. There is a great deal of data associated with game play, such as points, images, AI software, maintaining a Flickr stream, combining stats with other 5 Wits locations, time of day, an attendance popularity. Other opportunities include narrative design for the Virtual Storytelling class taught by Dan Pacheco at Newhouse and VR prototyping of adventure games in a digital environment. Museums also use interactivity to engage. Imagine, using the collected papers from a historic asylum in an escape room game, and then allowing participants to view and experience the aura of the physical texts within a guided museum environment. Could be revolutionary.

Last words:

Try it. It’s a “you have to be there” thing. For more on escape rooms, check out Dr. Nicholson’s decidedly un-stuffy white paper, hot off the press: http://scottnicholson.com/pubs/erfacwhite.pdf

Also check out 5 Wits creator Matthew DuPlessie’s talk on Tedx. http://tedxboston.org/speaker/duplessie

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About Sarah Bratt, M.S., LIS, ’14:

“Ciao! I’m a research assistant at Syracuse University and recent graduate of Syracuse University’s iSchool. An enthusiast and skeptic about many/most things, I write on wild ideas in library science, epistemology, and data science. Tweet with me: @sarahsbratt”

Diane Stirling

Diane is studying in the iSchool's information management master's program after completing her C.A.S. in social media in May '13. With an extensive background in news, public relations and marketing, she has been a communications specialist for the School since 2012 and serves as assistant editor for InfoSpace.

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