We recently received a question from a public official in Pennsylvania who’d been asked to approve the construction of an escape room in his community. He wrote in asking:
“In the event that a person in the room becomes disoriented to the point that they are unable to cope, how is that situation normally handled? Also, if there were an emergency outside of the room which required the occupants to be evacuated, how would they be notified? How would the company immediately end the scenario and open the door?”
We appreciate public officials who do their research, so we’re here to help.
Lock In Safety
There are a number of different ways that escape room designers secure players in rooms.
Lock In; No Emergency Exit
In the early days (a whole 3 years ago) escape rooms simply locked the players in the rooms. The player objective was to find the door key and escape.
This was problematic from a safety standpoint. It was also limiting from a creative perspective. We rarely see this anymore and strongly discourage it.
Lock In; Emergency Key
The first safety backup system was the addition of an emergency key next to the door. In this scenario, an emergency key is attached to the door on a chain next to the door lock or put inside of an easy-to-open pouch beside the door lock.
In the event of an emergency, any player can grab that key, open the door, and exit the room. The team doesn’t win, but at that point, nobody cares.
Lock In; Magnetic Locks
Next, companies began using mag locks, where the door is held shut with a powerful electromagnet.
Mag locks are common in escape rooms. They are great for both game design and safety. In rooms using mag locks, players usually win by tripping a sensor that triggers the door to open. It feels pretty magical.
If the power fails, mag locks open automatically because electricity powers the magnet.
This scenario offers easier safety releases than a typical door lock. The company can install a big “push to exit” button right next to the door. In an emergency, there is no need to fumble with a key. Any player can open the door with a moment’s notice. These doors are our preferred method of lock in.
No Lock In
Some “escape room” companies create excellent experiences where the players are never actually locked in a space. In these games, the designers build win conditions or objectives that don’t involve unlocking a door.
As the escape room industry diversifies, this is becoming increasingly common.
Surveillance & Gamemastering
Escape rooms should have thorough camera and microphone coverage.
A gamemaster can oversee the entire experience from a nearby space. This enables the gamemaster to keep an eye on the players and end the game if there is an emergency (inside or outside of the escape room).
We recommend that the cameras be placed so that the gamemaster doesn’t have blindspots.
We recommend good microphone coverage of the entire gamespace. The audio is actually more important because it’s easier to identify an impending problem by listening to what the players say than it is to determine what is happening by viewing their behavior.
The gamemaster should also have a method of rapidly communicating with the players. The most effective methods of communication are a speaker system in the room or a television monitor that displays typed messages.
While the communication method is usually used for delivering hints, it is occasionally used for delivering player behavior warnings. An attentive gamemaster can notice malicious players breaking props or misbehaving and put a stop to the behavior.
We also encourage escape room companies to have a dedicated gamemaster for each game. The gamemaster should devote their undivided attention to the team’s experience.
If the escape room has exposed electrical outlets, the game should never require players to interact with these. Furthermore, players should be explicitly instructed that these outlets are real and out of play. If building code allows it, the electrical outlets should be completely covered and removed from the gamespace.
Escape rooms should include smoke detectors. Players should be instructed that all emergency equipment is real and not part of the game. Moreover, it should never be tampered with.
Are escape rooms safe businesses?
A safe escape room has the following features:
- an emergency exit
- video and audio surveillance
- an attentive game master
- smoke detectors
- clear player instruction regarding safety
These precautions should adequately inform players of a crisis inside or outside of the gamespace and allow them to extract themselves from the game should they need (or want) to leave.
These experiences can and should be safe. We implore escape room owners to design thoughtfully around safety.
I have no idea how any escape rooms still have exposed electrical outlets. No room should require 120/220V power in any way accessible to players, unless you have a specially built and isolated circuit with a puzzle purpose (they find the extension cable, plug in the doohickey, and go from there). And even then it seems wise to design around that.
One time I played a room in Sacramento on a pretty warm day. The owner had plugged a portable air conditioner in the room, and set out in advance that that section of the room had nothing to do with the game, was just an AC, etc. This was very cool (hee hee) of them, but I believe they should have run an extension cord under the door from an external outlet instead of having an accessible electrical outlet in the room.
Seriously owners! And if you can’t modify your outlets, blank outlet covers cost less than $1 each at Home Depot, to safely cover up existing outlets. This safety issue can be completely removed from conversations about ERs without some big capital expenditure. (Incidentally you can use these to keep players from toggling a light switch instead of putting an ugly bunch of tape on it, too.)
I fully endorse this comment.
I also don’t know about every individual locale, but on top of these, typical fire safety codes for any kind of indoor amusement where players are entering rooms comprised of interior demolishing (or other types) of walls really should have exits marked (as they are in a movie theater – lit and visible at all times, from every angle), along with strobe/horn combos. These could obviously mess with the aesthetic of the rooms, but the presence of such is fairly critical, in that when you are in an immersive environment, something like a simple electromagnetic door popping open, or even basic smoke alarms ringing can easily be misinterpreted. Further, the possibility of an emergency in another part of the building or space should be considered and have a method by which players are notified in a recognizable, clear manner to exit the room. This is particularly true in rooms with low visibility environments, prop or set obstructions to safe egress, for which there should also be controls that bring up lights (automatically) in an emergency event.
Finally, I am fairly surprised that so few escape rooms have full sprinkler systems. With the prevalence of things like carved foam props, curtains, upholstery, and various live electrical connections in close proximity to these things + 100-200 square foot rooms, I sometimes shudder to think what might happen were a fire to start in one of these rooms. A smoke detector is a good tool for your house were a fire to start when you were sleeping or in another part of the house, but if a fire starts while you are in a locked (or honestly even an unlocked) room with only a single point of egress and 7-9 other people trying to get out, real disaster could ensue.
Full disclosure, I work for a multi-unit escape game company on exactly these kind of questions and issues. I can say that in many localities, the regulatory arms of P&Z/Building/Fire Marshals are beginning to catch up to the burgeoning world of escape games, and if these factors were not an initial consideration, owners would do well to start thinking about them now. Namely, many local regulatory boards are examining recently issued COs (certificate of occupancy) to see whether they are the correct class for the type of business – the somewhat publicized case of the “Room With a Clue” shutdowns in Dallas is a good example. Both were classed as ‘office/showroom/warehouse’, which is not correct, and does not hold anywhere close to the strictures that an ‘indoor/commercial amusement’ would, which is probably the closest classification. The owners acted as though it was some sort of strong-arm move by overzealous fire marshals with nothing better to do, but for some of the reasons stated above, this isn’t really the case. They are tasked with keeping people safe, and offices, showrooms, and warehouses have a number of features that are not shared with escape rooms.
Given that basically every escape room has the same name, or has some iteration of ‘escape’ in the name, and in that none of them are going to be more than 5-7 years old, it isn’t going to take a great deal of effort to cross-check these.
Ryan, we generally agree with you. You’re delving into a few things that we will be coving in more detail over the coming months.
There are a great many angles to safety that extend far beyond this post (and your comment), over time, we’ll continue to address them.