Unlocking the appeal of the escape room

Adela Talbot // Western News

Shawn Nagy, BA’14 (Psychology), and Emily Lyons, owners of Escape Canada on York Street, are working with Ivey Business School professor Ann Frost to use the facility for executive team building.

The teamwork required to work yourself through an ‘escape room’ is providing an alumnus with a growing business opportunity and a professor with a powerful training tool.

“Most people just want to come and have fun and they are buzzing when they leave,” said Shawn Nagy, BA’14 (Psychology), who along with Emily Lyons own Escape Canada on York Street. “But when I talk to teams about how they solved problems, it always comes down to someone on the team having a skill that others didn’t.”

Escape rooms are a physical adventure game where players are ‘locked’ in a room and must use elements in the room to solve a series of puzzles and ‘escape’ within a set time. For more than a decade, escape rooms have grown in popularity with players.

Nagy called escape rooms “a sensory experience of a perceived crisis” best solved with the combined skills of the people who are with you. Every escape room tells a story, an important part of the progress through the room and the enjoyment of solving puzzles.

Teamwork is essential, he stressed.

At Escape Canada, participants are given one hour to get through the storyline. There are generally 10-12 puzzles in a room and two-to-four steps in each puzzle. Solving puzzles can unlock doors, give you new puzzles and sometimes trigger surprise plot twists. Progress is monitored by game marshals via closed-circuit television and you are allowed to ask clues when you are stuck. Asking for clues may get you through the puzzle quicker, but the satisfaction of solving the puzzles usually means that you limit the number of clues that you request.

For inspiration, there is a leader board with time records for each room in the Escape Canada lobby.

“In an age where so much of our entertainment is experienced with our eyes only via screens, the appeal of an escape room comes from the immersive experience,” said Keegan Guidolin, a third-year Medical student, who along with his team holds time records at several escape rooms in London and Toronto.

“Not only are you completely surrounded by the puzzle (a part of the puzzle itself), you have to physically interact with the puzzle. You have to touch it, crawl through it, inspect it, listen to it and in at least one case, taste it. Escape rooms engage all of our senses and couple an immersive experience with challenging puzzles, teamwork and a sense of urgency to give you the rush of adrenaline only experienced with time running out.”

Keegan said teamwork is essential and that high-performance teams have members with diverse skill sets. “These teams understand the importance of humility and that there’s no shame in asking for help from a teammate,” he continued. “Good teams also have good communication and are able to understand the problem facing them and what solution they’re looking for.”

How teams solve problems is also an interest of Ivey Business School professor Ann Frost. She is currently using Escape Canada for executive team building.

“What seems to help are those people who are willing to verbalize. That sounds weird, but if people just start a running commentary on what they are observing they do better,” she explained. “They aren’t necessarily solving a problem, but if members of the team are verbal, it may be at exactly the moment someone with another problem needs what they have.”

Nagy is pleased to be a part of the collaboration with Ivey and believes teams can learn a lot about themselves from the rooms.

This maximizing of skills within a team is what makes escape rooms such good team-building experiences. Facilitated de-briefing is available for corporate groups to translate the escape room back to the work environment.

“In executive teams, they make connections to other people they didn’t have before and maybe they look at problems in more novel ways and not just from one perspective,” Frost said.

Nagy creates all the puzzles with help from Lyons and then constructs the rooms. To stay a step ahead of the gamers, a new room is installed about every six months. “Crafting the puzzles is my favourite part – but it’s not easy. Construction phases are intense. Sometimes, I will be standing in the shower and suddenly I’m calling to Emily to get me a pen because an idea just came to me.”

The London natives first got the idea for the escape room after visiting a room when they were travelling in Budapest. Building on their success in London, the pair will open another Escape Canada in Hamilton, in the coming months.