Genocides, Serial Killers, Tragedies, & Edgy Escape Room PR Nightmares

This week a Czech escape room company made international news when they opened – and then had to shut down – their Auschwitz-themed escape room due to relentless bad press.

Similarly, a company opened and promptly closed an Anne Frank-themed escape room in the Netherlands back in March of 2016.

And a Turkish company briefly operated a concentration camp-themed game in July of 2015.

A star of David built into a gate that looks like it is made of barbed wire.
Gates of the Jewish Memorial at Dachau

With so many edgy, dark, and disturbing escape rooms, I can understand why some companies occasionally find themselves in a public relations disaster.

These are a few loose theming guidelines to avoid a PR catastrophe:

Recency

An escape room themed on a recent tragedy will cause a problem.

For example, Columbine happened in 1999. That is still recent. So are the other mass shootings that have happened since. Escape from the school shooter is a horrible idea. It hits too close to home.

Similarly, don’t theme an escape room on disasters such as 9/11, the London Tube bombings, or refugees trying to escape the TSA.

These might seem like extreme examples, but that’s the point.

A serial killer from a hundred years ago like H.H. Holmes or Jack the Ripper feels almost fictional. If you read what those guys actually did… they were living, breathing, nightmares. Had this form of entertainment been around in 1890-something, I am betting that a lot of folks would have been horrified at a Jack the Ripper escape room.

Political relevance

Some events happened long ago, but their relevance hasn’t faded. Genocides and enslavement are the kinds of things that aren’t quickly forgotten.

It’s not a good idea to build a game around the German concentration camps, Japanese internment, the Armenian genocide, the Japanese occupation of China, the current situation in the Sudan, or any of the countless crimes against humanity of past or present.

Striving for meaningful art

There are a few escape room designers striving to use the medium to tell a deeper story about humanity and to educate their players about the world that they live in. These designers desperately believe that with enough research, attention to detail, and respect for the subject matter, they can make a game that will shine a light on an atrocity and help people better understand it.

I haven’t seen anyone pull this off yet, but I believe that someone will accomplish it. As this medium of entertainment grows, evolves, and expands, someone will start making games that move people to tears, and to action.

However, I bet that these designers will find their early success in topics that have far less political relevance.

Someone, someday will make a masterpiece Schindler’s List of escape rooms. I am certain that there is a brilliant, educational, and compelling escape room in the Underground Railroad. These concepts are ripe for storytelling, but escape rooms aren’t there yet. Our ability to tell stories isn’t strong enough and the medium hasn’t grown enough in the public’s eye to be anything more than a game designed to amuse.

If enough designers continue to push themselves, we will get there. But we are not even close at this moment.

Ask yourself these questions

To steer clear of trouble, reflect on these questions before investing in a buildout for an especially dark game:

  • Is it based on something that really happened?
  • Did it happen recently?
  • Is it politically relevant?
  • Did a lot of people die?
  • Are the victims still alive?
  • Are the children of the victims still alive?
  • Are there people or governments actively denying that the event happened?

If you have answered “yes” to any of these, think long and hard about what you’re building before you commit your blood, sweat, tears, and cash to the concept.

When in doubt, feel free to drop us a message. We’ll happily talk it out with you. You wouldn’t be the first.

(Image via BoingBoing)

5 thoughts on “Genocides, Serial Killers, Tragedies, & Edgy Escape Room PR Nightmares

  1. Beautifully written, important article.

    I’d add that one of the few negative pieces I’ve seen written about escape rooms – https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2014/08/15/woman_urges_ttc_to_remove_ads_for_psych_ward_escape_game.html – arose from a room where someone set it in a psychiatric ward. That strikes me as a theme that will always be on the wrong side of the line between edgy and tasteless. (On the other hand, when I’ve brought this up in conversation on Facebook, another owner said that their psych ward room was their most popular seller – but that doesn’t make it the right thing to do…)

    1. I don’t think it’s practical to try and make games that are completely inoffensive. Offense is in the eye of the beholder, and damn near every game I have played is probably offensive in some way to someone.

      I’ve seen someone argue that the entire concept of escape games is offensive because it desensitizes people to the concept of abduction.

      If someone wants to be offended, they will find a way.

      I’m more suggesting ways to avoid massive controversy.

      1. Sure, it’s a question of where you draw the line. I provided a data point of the consequences of a misdrawn line – and, in this instance, I’m firmly on the side of Ms. Thériault.

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