The Psychology of Escape Rooms

What happens when you lose yourself in the escape room experience? Many people who enter one of these rooms find themselves completely captivated by the experience, losing their sense of time and sometimes even their sense of self.

Escape games are designed to be fully immersive, but what is it about them that people enjoy so much? Why have escape rooms become so popular over the last several years? What is it about escape rooms that people find so captivating?

Origins of Escape Rooms

The earliest escape rooms came in the form of computer games. In these games, a player would click on objects on the screen to solve puzzles and eventually find their way out of the virtual room. These early games were single-player and became popular among the PC crowd for a while. They gained a resurgence in popularity again with the rise of smartphones.

Real-world escape games were taking place in Japan as early as 2008, but the first fully-fledged live escape room was opened in 2011. It opened its doors in Budapest, Hungary thanks to founder Attila Gyurkovics. He called the game Parapark. It was a game very much the same as modern escape rooms, where participants must work together as a group to find their way out of a room in a limited amount of time. Attila Gyurkovics designed Parapark based on Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow.

What is Flow?

Flow is a highly-focused mental state in which a person is completely absorbed in an activity for their own enjoyment or pleasure. In this state of flow, time passes by quickly and your thoughts or actions seem to seamlessly follow one another. Being in a state of flow allows us to lose ourselves in the experience.

Simply put, being in a flow state feels good. Escape rooms are specially designed to be engaging and enjoyable enough to encourage a flow state in participants. This is the reason we enjoy escape rooms.

But what is it that elicits a flow state in someone trying to solve their way out of a locked room with other people? What is it about the experience of an escape room that causes so many people to lose themselves in the enjoyment of solving the puzzle?

Realms of Experience

To answer these questions, we must first discuss what it is that makes up an enjoyable experience. Harvard Business Review lists the four realms that make up an experience as entertainment, educational, esthetic, and escapist.

Experiences that fall into the realm of entertainment, such as watching tv or listening to music, are generally those in which people participate more passively than actively. They are more likely to be absorbed into the experience, but remain outside of it, than have a sense of immersion.

An educational experience, like attending a class or listening to a lecture, tends to involve active participation rather than passive. People involved in educational experiences also tend to remain outside of the action rather than become immersed.

Escapist experiences involve active participation. They can teach just as well as educational experiences, or be as enjoyable as entertainment experiences, but they require more immersion into the event. Escapist events can consist of extreme sports or acting in a play.

Experiences in the esthetic realm are often immersed in the event but participate very little in the environment. Examples of some esthetic experiences would be visiting an art gallery or sightseeing outdoors.

The Escape Rooms’ Sweet Spot

Harvard Business Review states that richest experiences usually encompass aspects all four realms of experience, forming a sweet spot where all the proper criteria are met. An experience that can be designed to achieve the right amount of all four of these realms could possibly induce a flow state in its participants. Escape rooms achieve this goal, thus explaining their rapidly-growing popularity.

The design and nature of escape rooms calls upon each of these four areas of experience. A good escape room calls for active participation, player immersion, and provides esthetic and educational characteristics. The nature of this cleverly-crafted and all-around enjoyable experience leaves no wonder as to why escape rooms have gained so much popularity among so many different types of people.

Flow in Escape Rooms

Flow is achieved in escape rooms by offering different aspects of all of these realms of experience. It does this by offering several things:

  • A challenge. If a challenge encourages you to use all of your skills, then it’s more likely that you’ll fall into a state of flow.
  • Clearly defined goals. Escape rooms offer a clearly defined goal: get out of the locked room. That’s not likely to lose your attention. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that we are more likely to experience a flow state when we have clear goals.
  • Direct and immediate feedback. Short-term feedback is a great way for people to feel like they’re on the right track. Solving the smaller puzzles in escape rooms reinforces the feeling that participants are making progress.
  • Excludes other information. In an escape room, there are no distractions. You’re locked inside a room with your friends and you have to think your way out. A state of flow can’t be achieved with distractions from the outside world easily at hand.
  • A feeling of control. Whenever you solve one of the puzzles in an escape room, you feel immensely satisfied. You feel as if you’ve made a step toward progress, using nothing but your willpower, or the combined willpower of you and your team. This feeling of control allows participants to feel good about themselves.
  • Losing your sense of self. There are times, in an escape room, for example, when time seems to move infinitely faster than usual. Three hours may have gone by, but to you it seems as if only thirty minutes has past. In a state of flow, time is compressed, ego is lost, and a sense of freedom is felt. This loss of self and immersion into the experience is what makes escape rooms enjoyable.

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