Escape room companies host a variety of player types: corporate team-building outings, birthday parties, families, bachelorette parties, competitive puzzle people, and fantasy role-playing nerds, to name a few.
Recently, however, I’ve noticed a clear trend emerging. Escape room companies across the country seem to be experiencing it. Kids are getting into escape rooms, big time.
Kids’ birthday parties, teen outings, kids urging their parents to take them to an escape room. Kids, kids, kids. They’ve become a non-trivial customer group. The reactions I am hearing from owners range from extreme gratitude for the revenue, to disappointment with an audience that doesn’t get their themes, stories, and puzzles, to mild disgust with the destructive tendencies of unsupervised younger players.
While it is great that younger demographics are becoming aware and interested in escape rooms, it feels like there is still a bit of a disconnect with many adults. There seems to be a stigma among some people that escape rooms are only for kids, parties, or other special events… that they aren’t for normal, average, serious adults looking for entertainment. Adults don’t want to play silly, make-believe characters and then get embarrassed by failing to solve puzzles under pressure. Adults crave stories and experiences with deeper meanings and emotions. Adults want stories about love and loss, sacrifice and redemption. Those escape room things are a place where you drop off the kids for an hour.
I wish we could find a way to reach more adults to explain that escape rooms aren’t just silly games for kids. They can be so much more. They can be for you too, especially if you do a little research and choose wisely.
What Does It Mean For Creators?
Who is your intended audience? It can make sound business sense for creators to design future experiences for the most likely audience, even if that isn’t your intended audience. I fear owners may be tempted to lean into the younger player/ customer trend. But escape rooms should be for adults. At least, some of them should be. I know that some of my favorite games have been described by their creators as the type of game that they would want to play, not something built for kids or designed for mass appeal.
I urge designers not to abandon us adults who appreciate what this medium can become. There is so much potential for escape rooms as a storytelling art form. We aren’t there yet. We must choose to explore that potential rather than slide backward. We need to build escape rooms for adults.
“Mature the medium, stop trying to simulate experiences and start creating emotions.”Jenova Chen
Kathryn Yu (Executive Editor at No Proscenium, graduate student at USC Games, and a guest on The Reality Escape Pod Season 3) once told me, “I think there’s an argument to be made that in order for the form to move forward, it needs to be more than what it currently is.”
Kathryn introduced me to recent Peabody Award-winner Jenova Chen, who basically said the same thing about video games a decade ago. “Pushing the boundary of the medium is the only way you can help it grow beyond its current audience,” says Chen.
Paraphrasing a bit from a pixelkin.org article on Chen: Adult games today, unfortunately, are not so much written for adults as they are written for “a child in a man’s body.” Action games are fine, but not everything. Sometimes action games do fulfill an emotional need, but there are other times when you want to feel differently, when you want to be touched, you want to learn something, you want to be enlightened. What is the escape room equivalent of an Oscar-worthy drama?
More from the pixelkin.org article: “Games can be much more than action-adventure. To make a game sad, or touching, or relaxing, designers have to take some risks. For Jenova Chen, the result was worth it. “All these people, in all ages, all genders, from all around the world, they play games and they need this content,” Chen said. Developers must put their heart into their games, and only then can they turn games into a medium worthy of respect.”
Escape room designers might be reluctant to try to make players feel these more mature emotions. If their wish is to design for the biggest possible audience, they may want to avoid content risk. Yet one of my all-time favorite escape rooms, Storyteller’s Secret at Boxaroo, was described by Room Escape Artist as: “Intimate, mellow, and heartwarming. This combination is one of the least-explored territories in the escape game world.” It is an experience that probably won’t land or resonate as well with teenagers or pure power puzzlers. Boxaroo took that risk and the result turned out to be one of the best escape rooms in the world.
Escape game creators that are interested in taking a similar risk would do themselves a huge favor by visiting The Nest, a moving experience that caused David Spira to comment: “Lisa and I emerged from The Nest and couldn’t bring ourselves to speak about what we heard, saw, and felt for hours.”
Some Hollywood actors and directors employ a system where they alternate between making mass-market movies to build up their image, creating industry goodwill, and bringing in some guaranteed income, and then using all of that to create what they really wanted to make in the first place: a riskier but higher quality project that speaks profoundly to their intended audience. Escape room owners could use a similar system in this industry. Too many escape game designers seem to think that a different game theme makes for an all-new player experience. A new experience requires players to feel different emotions.
From Room Escape to Reality Escape
Even if you don’t make a “high risk” game, it’s probably still best to design for adults.
Most puzzles are meant for adults, and escape rooms are all about communication, which can be hard for groups of kids, or even teens. For adults, this provides an opportunity to really share an experience with peers, participate in it together, and to connect with someone in a way that is deeper than what you’d get from reading the same book or watching the same movie.
Children so easily slip into the world of make believe. Adults don’t typically work like that, but escape rooms help provide an environment where we can do this. They are real life venues that allow us to step outside reality for a bit. They are places where we are free to feel things without consequences.
I’ve often told the story about how upon exiting The Man From Beyond at Strange Bird Immersive, my wife slugged me in the arm and said, “escape rooms are not supposed to make me cry,” but I think that maybe sometimes… they are. Let’s lean into that.