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.