With new concepts come new words. “Escape Room” was among the 533 new words that Merriam-Webster added to their dictionary in their latest batch of updates.
Today we’re going to look at their definition and see if we can improve upon it.
Merriam-Webster’s definition of escape room
: a game in which participants confined to a room or other enclosed setting (such as a prison cell) are given a set amount of time to find a way to escape (as by discovering hidden clues and solving a series of riddles or puzzles)
Parsing This Definition
They nailed a lot of the key elements here with “game,” “participants,” “set amount of time,” “discovering,” “solving,” and “puzzles.”
We don’t love that “confined” is part of the definition. That gives some people the wrong impression that this activity is dangerous or claustrophobic. That said, as written, this captures that physical space is a key element.
It seems strange to argue with “to find a way to escape” as part of the definition, but in this aspect of the wording, I think Merriam-Webster is just a bit behind. This was true for quite some time, but the term now encompasses broader goals.
Why we love Merriam-Webster
We love Merriam-Webster because they are dedicated to describing the language we use. They watch as terms gain staying power or evolve. They make updates. And they are descriptivists; so are we.
The Room Escape Artist Definition
Escape Room – (noun, singular) a game where a group of participants collaboratively discovers and solves puzzles, tasks, and challenges that require no outside knowledge at a physical venue in order to accomplish a goal within a set amount of time.
In our ERban Dictionary, we also define two synonyms: Room Escape, Escape Game
Room For Discussion
In escape rooms, players both “discover” and “solve” the challenges. There aren’t any directions provided. Discovery is part of what separates an escape room from other types of puzzle games.
“No outside knowledge” separates escape rooms from puzzle hunts. While both are challenging, puzzle-solving activities, escape rooms should be self-contained and shouldn’t require any specialized knowledge.
“Physical venue” separates escape rooms from video games and VR. The idea of real-life or meetspace is a crucial differentiator.
We define escape room and escape game as synonyms. At present, these terms are mostly used interchangeably… except when we don’t want to argue the finer points of a “room” when discussing experiences that take place outdoors, around a table, or in a ballroom, stadium, or theater.
And these points are, of course, arguable. Our definition encompasses physical venues that are outdoors or that hold more than one team at once. These are atypical, but we still see them as escape rooms.
More Room for Discussion
The elephant in the physical venue is the word “escape.” Why is the activity called “escape room” when the goal is to find a relic, steal a McGuffin, or disarm a bomb? In these cases, there might not even be any escaping.
This takes us back to Merriam-Webster. Dictionaries don’t ask why. They describe how language is used.
This term has evolved since its early usage in English somewhere between 2010 and 2012 when “escape” described the sole goal of the activity. That’s what we recognize in our definition.