Escape Rooms Offer a New Take on Teambuilding

This fun activity promotes creativity, problem solving, and communication

escape room meeting groups

Imagine you're locked in a small cell in a maximum-security prison. Instead of criminals, your fellow inmates are ten colleagues. Together you have 60 minutes to orchestrate a successful prison break. If you succeed, freedom and a cocktail are yours.

This may sound like a strange work-themed nightmare, but it isn't a dream at all: It's the premise for one of several "escape room" games offered by SCRAP Entertainment Inc., the Japanese creator and operator of Real Escape Game live interactive puzzle events in San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and Toronto. Since 2012, the company has catered to gamers and puzzlers, but it also courts corporate groups in search of a unique teambuilding activity.

"Our games are really great for [corporate groups] because they emphasize working together, communicating effectively, delegating tasks, and thinking creatively, which are strategies employees can use at work in the real world," says Private Event Director Alex Smith.

Along with the aforementioned prison game -- "Escape From the Jail" in San Francisco -- SCRAP Entertainment's games include "Escape From the Submarine," also in San Francisco; "Escape From the Mysterious Room" in San Jose; "Escape From the Bank" in Los Angles; and "Escape From the Time Travel Lab" in San Jose, Los Angeles, and Toronto. Meanwhile, there are dozens of other, similar rooms operated by competitors in cities across North America, each with different themes and approaches. America's Escape Game has escape rooms in Orlando, for instance; Countdown Live Escape Games in Los Angeles and Las Vegas; and Great Room Escape in San Antonio; Denver; Chicago; Old San Juan, Puerto Rico; Layton, UT; San Diego; and New York.

Whatever the theme, operator, or location, the premise is the same: After receiving instructions, gameplay rules, and a vivid story setting the scene for the game to come, groups of four to 12 players are locked together in a room that is intricately decorated with themed furnishings, art, and props. Once the door is locked, teams have 60 minutes to "solve" the room by uncovering clues within their surroundings that lead them, eventually, to a hidden key that physically unlocks the door and sets them free.

"Essentially, we're reinventing the old 'murder mystery' genre," says producer and partnerships lead Doc Preuss.

Room escapes have a number of advantages compared to traditional teambuilding activities, according to Smith and Preuss. One is engagement.

"We have a really intricate story base in our activities," Smith says. "Instead of just having you untie a bunch of ropes or finish an obstacle course, we provide a story that you're actually integrated into. Your job is to complete that story with your coworkers -- beginning, middle, and end -- so you actually feel fulfilled at the end of your experience together."

Another benefit is diversity. "We're active, but we're also cerebral," Preuss explains. "We design our games to engage a number of different personality and skill types so participants can look for ways to contribute will play to their strengths."

Which leads to yet another asset: When everyone contributes, there are more opportunities for shared learning and bonding. "With everyone working toward the same goal, there's a lot of good decompression that can happen after the game," continues Preuss, who says corporate groups can host a session with a facilitator afterwards to talk about what happened during the game and analyze the skills it took to solve the room. "People can talk about their team's strategy and compare it to their coworker's team. Managers who are watching can see how people do and determine what lessons can be taken back to the office based on what they observed. And players can reflect on what they accomplished, or how they could have gone about things in a different way."

Although most escape rooms are restricted to guests of a dozen or fewer people, SCRAP Entertainment has engineered a variation on the concept for large groups of 30 to 300 players. Called "Escape From the Werewolf Village," its large-format game can be played at stadiums, convention centers, or in companies' own conference rooms. Instead of being physically locked in a room, groups are divided into small teams that share a large event space simultaneously. Although there's no key to find, there's a story, a solution, and clues hidden around the space -- just like there would be in a regular escape room.

"Inside a room, your goal is to enter, solve a series of clues and puzzles, find an actual key, unlock the room, and escape. For our large-scale games, the goal isn't escaping a room; it's escaping a scenario," Smith says. "For example, in 'Escape From the Werewolf Village' you find yourself trapped in a village where there are nightly werewolf attacks; your goal is to metaphorically escape from the village by meeting certain objectives."

Although solving the puzzle is a priority, the ultimate goal isn't winning the game: It's playing it.

"We generally have an average success rate of only 10 to 15 percent, but 98 to 99 percent of people say they loved their experience regardless," Smith says.

"It's about the experience, not whether you could escape or not," echoes Preuss, who says the most important takeaway for participants isn't a key, but rather a lesson. "If you have an educated guess in one of our games and you go for it, there's a good chance you'll be rewarded. Rewarding educated guesses and leaps of faith is something we actively promote because we want our players to see that they can accomplish anything -- even if it might seem impossible."