The Privilege of Escape: Interview with Artist & Game Designer Risa Puno

Risa Puno is an artist who uses games to examine social dynamics. We spent a lovely April evening with Risa chatting about escape rooms over dinner at an adorable restaurant in the West Village. After learning about her upcoming project, an escape room that explores issues of privilege and inequity, we were eager to chat with her more.

Risa Puno sitting on her workbench.

We caught up with Risa this week to learn more about her project. Her Kickstarter The Privilege of Escape has less than a week to go!

Room Escape Artist: Tell us about your project!

This summer, I am working with Creative Time to create an interactive public art project called The Privilege of Escape that uses the format of escape room games in order to address issues of privilege and social inequity.

Who is Creative Time?

For over 40 years, Creative Time has worked with artists to realize public art projects that contribute to the dialogues, debates, and dreams of our times. Their free and open to the public artworks address major social issues, including the annual 9/11 memorial Tribute in Light, Kara Walker’s A Subtlety…, the enormous sugar sphinx staged at the Domino Sugar Factory in 2014, Duke Riley’s Fly by Night at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and Pedro Reyes’ Doomocracy, a political haunted house at the Brooklyn Army Terminal in 2016.

World Trade Center "Tribute in Light" twin towers of light glowing bright in the sky.
Creative Time project, “Tribute in Light.” Photo by Jesse Mills.

Why address the concept of privilege through a game?

I am using the mechanics of escape room games to show that privilege doesn’t necessarily guarantee a win… but it does make it easier to play the game.

Games can operate as simple metaphors for more complex social interactions. This game will be a kind of experiential metaphor that can (hopefully) bypass the charged language around privilege.

The word “privilege” has become so loaded that it often triggers some pretty strong reactions that can shut down meaningful conversation. This game will be a way to open ourselves to the topic.

Why build this as an escape room?

I am especially interested in escape rooms because they are awesome and super fun (duh!), but also because I believe in their potential to communicate deeper meaning. There is something about the combination of group problem-solving with urgent competition that is remarkably impactful.

When I played my first escape room, I was surprised and impressed by how real my emotions were during game play—curiosity, excitement, anxiety, frustration, panic, discovery, delight, euphoria—it was all built in! Whenever I play, although my brain knows it’s just a fun game without anything at stake, I really do feel the highs and lows in a visceral way.

The emotions are heightened by the small group experience, which is rather intimate, and where people’s personalities can emerge in interesting ways. Escape rooms promote teamwork and communication by rewarding participation and collaboration. Even when I’ve played with strangers, I’ve felt a personal connection with them after escaping because we have shared both adversity and triumph together.

A game that requires collective problem-solving to get through uncomfortable situations seems like an ideal format for tackling difficult social issues. Plus, I think having to work to unlock resources and opportunities in order to advance yourself speaks a lot to the concept of privilege.

The ability to escape is inherently a privilege. The freedom to remove yourself from disturbing or harmful circumstances requires (at the very least) access to means, expectation of mobility, and the hope for a more favorable outcome. Our privilege often manifests in what we don’t have to worry about or the things we aren’t aware of. That invisibility can make it really challenging to address.

Escape rooms generally attract people with curious minds who are looking to challenge themselves. After all, escape rooms are all about thinking outside of the box, letting go of assumptions, and seeing things from a new perspective.

Since players usually like to spend additional time afterward to “froth” and talk through the tough puzzles and epic hero moments, I truly believe this format can spark meaningful discussion and communication that could continue beyond the game itself.

A mini golf hole with a loop.
Risa’s “Leap of Faith.” Photo: TalismanPHOTO

What is your response to someone who “doesn’t want to be lectured” while playing a game?

I agree! I wouldn’t want to be lectured while playing a game either. That’s not what this project is about. We are working hard to design interesting puzzles and develop an engaging narrative. It should be as active and exciting as a commercial escape room.

That being said, this is first and foremost a public art project. Privilege and social inequity are not issues that I take lightly.

I believe that games can be used to better understand how we relate to one another. I think that when people are having fun, they tend to be more open to new things. As an artist, my aim is to present a playable experience that allows participants to draw their own conclusions and form their own opinions.

It might not be something everyone wants to take part in. I totally get that. However, if you’re interested in a memorable experience that might provide some food for thought, then you should definitely come play!

What are you hoping people feel as they walk away from this experience?

I imagine that people will walk away feeling a lot of the same emotions they do when playing regular escape rooms. After a really good game, I usually leave still feeling tingly from the thrill. I am hyper-aware of the world around me and my role within it. I want to relive every moment and puzzle, trade opinions with my teammates, celebrate the things we did really well, and talk through things that we could have done better.

I love discussing the dynamics between the players and how that affected our game. It makes me feel like we were in charge of our collective experience. I think that’s what having the privilege of escape is all about.

What are some escape rooms you are taking inspiration from?

I’ve mostly played escape rooms in around New York City, where I live.

I really enjoyed the seamless puzzle flow in Operation End of Days at Mission Escape Games.

I also enjoyed how Komnata Quest’s innovative use of physical space in Maze of Hakaina supported their theme.

I thought the hint delivery system in Alien Encounter at Clue Chase was particularly novel.

I felt transported by the introductory sequence of Deep Space at 5 Wits in West Nyack.

I enjoyed how Exit Escape Room NYC constructed the submarine setting for Operation Dive.

Practically every room I’ve played has offered fun and unexpected moments that I’ve found inspiring. It’s fascinating to see what kinds of narratives game designers come up with to create a sense of urgency and wonder.

As a builder and tinkerer, I especially love seeing exciting sets and hands-on puzzles that require spatial reasoning and visual logic. I’m a total nerd, so I definitely prefer puzzle-based challenges over tasks. I live for that “aha” moment when you realize what you’re supposed to do with something that’s been right in front of you the whole time. I’ve also become addicted to the rush of adrenaline that comes when you don’t know how many puzzles are left so you’re not sure if you’re going to make it out in time.

I’m taking inspiration from games I haven’t played yet too! Since there are so many rooms out there and so little time before this project goes live, it’s been super helpful to read your reviews on Room Escape Artist. Thank you!

While I’ll be too busy with this project to join your Escape Immerse Explore tours this summer, I totally want to do that next year!

I am most inspired by how creative and innovative the escape room community is. It’s wonderful to be around thinkers who are constantly trying to push the envelope with new ideas. Everyone I’ve had the pleasure of meeting has been so generous with information and advice. This is a fun, wacky, intense community. I am absolutely honored to become a part of it.

What are some of the other projects you’ve created that might give escape room players a sense of your approach design?

I make interactive installations and sculptures that often use forms of play to understand how we relate to one another.

For example, I made a fully functional 9-hole miniature golf course called The Course of Emotions: a mini-golf experience. Each hole presented emotional obstacles that you had to overcome, such as Worry, which featured a windmill with blades shaped like question marks to symbolize how when you’re worried your questions get in the way; a par-40 maze that literally spelled the word “Frustration;” and Insecurity, which required players to deal with physical insecurity by putting while standing on a seesaw platform.

Emotion mini golf
Risa’s The Course of Emotions I.

I’ve also made my own version of the classic tilting maze game Labyrinth. My version was larger and two players were given identical mazes attached to the same tilting surface, so they had to negotiate and decide whether they were going to cooperate or compete. The title, Good Faith & Fair Dealing, comes from contract law. I really liked seeing how players communicated with each other because it said a lot about their relationship with one another. It was fun to see the differences between how old married couples played versus people who had just started dating. Roommates and coworkers were probably the best since they’re used to problem solving and compromising with one another. Once I saw identical twins play and they won together without speaking a word out loud!

Who else is working with you on The Privilege of Escape?

I’m primarily working with Brett Kuehner, who designed the Golden Lock-In Award-winning Clock Tower at Escape the Room NYC.

Brett is the best! His enthusiasm for all things puzzle-related is infectious!

Our working styles and skill sets are complementary. I have a lot of ideas. He’s been invaluable in sorting them into: fun versus confusing, reliable versus finicky, and feasible versus unrealistic.

I have experience with interactive play and analog/ tactile game design, but this is my first time creating an escape room. Brett’s technical expertise and first-hand knowledge of escape room behavior and logistics is incredible.

Brett is always patient and generous with his advice. He’s been an incredible asset to this project.

What design concepts are you currently thinking through?

This week I’ve also been thinking about what makes an escape room fair.

There is a surprising amount of acceptable frustration and confusion that is part of the normal escape room experience because the players’ sense of accomplishment is rooted in overcoming difficulties. This is different from anything I’ve built previously.

Another challenge at the moment is developing the narrative aspect of the experience. My past work hasn’t usually involved an explicit narrative and I don’t have a background in immersive theater. Thankfully Creative Time has my back for that (and everything else!).  I’m really excited by how things are shaping up.

With Creative Time backing this project, how will the Kickstarter money be used?

The more money we raise, the more people can play! The funding gained through the Kickstarter campaign will be used to extend the run of the exhibition.

Creative Time is covering the costs of the project’s production and run, but we are facing a limited capacity due to the small-group nature of escape rooms. With your support, we’ll be able to extend the length of the project, allowing us to share this unique experience with as many people as possible.

By backing our campaign, you can get all kinds of nifty rewards too, including reserving a spot for yourself to play.

Your support also acknowledges Creative Time’s efforts to work with the next generation of socially engaged artists. Really, it’s a win-win for all of us who are interested in gaming, social justice, and art all rolled into one!

An infinite mobius strip monkey bars.
Risa’s Mobius Strip Monkey Bars

Where/ when/ how can players experience your escape room?

The Privilege of Escape will open this July in New York City. Creative Time’s projects are always free and open to the public, but tickets go fast and there usually ends up being a really long waitlist.

You can get your ticket in advance by backing the Kickstarter. Many of our reward tiers include it!

More information on ticketing will be available in June on Creative Time’s website.

Back The Privilege of Escape on Kickstarter, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

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