Lasers in Escape Room Design

Lasers are a pretty common trope in escape room design. They tend to appear in lab-themed escape rooms because lasers are sciencey. They are also a fairly common trope in Egyptian tombs.

“Lasers in Egypt”

There’s a portion of the escape room-loving population that gets really annoyed about lasers in Egyptian tomb-themed escape rooms.

While I get that they are out of place, I have never been bothered by this trope. I fully recognize this as an homage to Legend of Zelda Mirror Shield puzzles:

Legend of Zelda Mirror Shield Gif
Lasers are easier to manipulate than beams of light.

Or, more likely, they are an homage to the iconic Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Arc map room illumination:

Indiana Jones holding the staff in the Egyptian map room and illuminating the location of the Arc of the Covenant.
That really looks like a laser.

Regardless of the inspiration, lasers can be an effective way to create a memorable interaction and there are iconic cultural references that justify this.

Just Don’t:

  • give me a handheld laser pointer, especially in Egypt
  • use a green laser when you’re trying to emulate the Sun
  • make your laser puzzle boring or unmemorable
  • feel like every single Egyptian tomb requires a laser interaction; it’s fine, but it’s still a cliche

Laser Safety Concerns

While lasers may seem like narrow flashlights, they aren’t. They come with the potential for hazard. I will highlight a few key lessons about laser safety, but do know that there’s a ton of research and material out on this subject. When in doubt, do more research.

Laser Color

There are substantial differences between lasers of different colors.

Lonestar & Dark Helmet squaring off in a Schwartz lightsaber fight.

For example, blue lasers must be high power in order to make them visible… and at higher power levels, they are also remarkably good at burning things. For the love of puzzles, do not put a blue laser into an escape room or any other type of amusement.

Red and green lasers are more realistic options to choose from. Green lasers will usually be brighter. They also tend to have higher power output.

Laser Power & the Law.

In the United States, lasers pointers are required to have power output labeling and cannot exceed 5 milliwatts (<5 mW). If you’re buying a laser that isn’t housed in a pointer, then they could be considerably more potent.

These regulations change from country to country. For example, in the United Kingdom, laser pointers exceeding 1 mW are illegal. Check the national or local laws governing lasers before using them in an escape room.

One problem that plagues the laser market is the mislabeling of lasers. In 2014, “National Institute of Standards and Technology researchers tested 122 laser pointers and found that nearly 90 percent of green pointers and about 44 percent of red pointers tested were out of compliance with federal safety regulations” (NIST). This means that the labels understated the power output of the lasers, increasing the health risks associated with them.

This video can walk you through how to test your laser’s output (and it’s pretty cool):

Magnifying Glasses & Lenses

The above video also demonstrates how well lasers and magnifying lenses can team up to start fires.

If you’re going to include a laser in an escape room, please don’t also include a magnifying glass or prescription lens as it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that a inquisitive or destructive player might use these together.

Keep Lasers Away From Eyeballs

If you’re designing laser-based interactions where the laser passes through the gamespace, try to avoid having the laser pass through eye level (knowing that height is always a variable).

A few best practices:

  • Don’t have lasers turn on in the direction of the players.
  • Design reflection puzzles to avoid eye level.
  • Use low power lasers when there is a chance that they may be at eye level.
  • Know the power output of your laser; don’t put unsafe or questionable lasers near eyeballs.

Health Risks Associated with Lasers

If a laser is <5 mW, the risk of permanent damage from brief exposure for an adult is incredibly low (JAMA 2004, JAMA 2005).

Brief exposure has been known to cause temporary afterimages, flash blindness, and glare (Princeton University).

The risk of permanently harming a person with a <5 mW laser is low, but it is worth paying a little extra attention to power output as well as laser placement to ensure that no harm comes to players.

I have caught a laser to the eye in an escape room. While I wasn’t hurt, it wasn’t a pleasant sensation… and I would have had more fun without it.

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