The science that makes escape rooms so difficult

Red Bull Mind Gamers host the first-ever Escape Room World Championship. Why are they so fiendish?
By Harry Davies

You enter an escape room knowing nothing other than your brain is about to be put to the test. So simple, so intimidating.

“When people are just about to solve a problem, it feels as if you’re standing at the edge of a cliff, about to jump,” says expert on problem solving and cognitive scientist at Northwestern University, Carola Salvi.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen afterward because you don’t know what kind of problem you’re going to face.”

This month 24 teams from around the world are flying to Budapest to take on the ultimate escape room, Mission Unlock Enoch, for the Escape Room World Championship, hosted by Red Bull Mind Gamers. We spoke to Salvi to find out how escape rooms make for an unforgettable experience.

Anxiety and vision

A fear of the unknown and a desire to beat the game; the clock or the opposing team sets hearts racing.

Our bodies have evolved to react to these pressures by releasing adrenaline, making us move faster, react quicker and think more sharply.

It’s a double-edged sword though.

“Several studies have shown that anxiety and stressful situations influence our attention, the cognitive process that leads our vision systems,” says Salvi.

“In these scenarios, we tend to filter out visual distractors and noise.”

We focus our attention on the cause of our anxiety, whether that’s a predator or an escape-room game.

This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. When you’re running away from a sabre-toothed tiger, you can’t waste your time with superfluous stimuli.

“But,” Carola warns, “by filtering out all of that information, we neglect connections among objects that, in an escape room, might allow us to have the insight that might lead to the solution!”

Infographic about the history of mind challenges for Red Bull Mind Gamers
The history of mind challenges © Red Bull Media House
Infographic about Red Bull Mind Gamers stats and figures
The first-ever Escape Room World Championship © Red Bull Media House

Tools

When our brains are met with a problem for the first time, they compare it to others they have faced in the past.

Scans have shown that, even before we’ve seen a puzzle in its entirety, we activate particular parts of the brain depending on what type of reasoning we think a challenge will require.

“You structure the elements of the problem in a mental space. You take a picture of the elements that you want to consider and you stick with that vision," says Salvi. "That’s really hard to change.”

This makes our problem solving in the real world more efficient.

Escape rooms are an alternative universe, each step has just one solution and it’s not going to be as simple as we hope. If we think we recognise a challenge’s components, we could adopt the wrong method and wasting precious seconds on a method that will never work.

“We must restructure this initial representation to consider those elements and the way we frame them in an alternative way.”

Time pressure

To research how we cope with time pressure, Salvi created four different challenges, each one required a different type of method to work it out.

With every one of them, running out of time seriously affected people’s abilities to solve them.

Many escape-room challenge solutions will come to players out of the blue in a “Eureka!” moment, often thanks to unconscious processing.

The results of Salvi’s research showed that running out of time shifted subjects thinking away from the type of reasoning that goes into that “Eureka!” moment to more analytical, sequential processing.

“Answers given during the last five seconds of each task were almost always less insightful and had a much lower probability of being correct.”

Escape rooms can require sharp memory skills too, to remember codes or a series of actions say. Pressure almost always throws people off here.

A ticking clock isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This same change in process can actually help when problems require that sort of analytical thinking.

Teams and leaders

“A group always chooses a leader who must play the role of social architect,” says Salvi.

They must do two main things:

“Tunnel vision”

As the time goes down and the pressure rises, players grow more likely to obsess over details that could well be useless.

A leader needs to recognise when a change of strategy is needed and ensure nothing is considered any longer or any less than it needs to be.

“Facilitate the dynamic”

A diverse range of personalities and talents will lead to escape-room success, but the balance needs to be managed carefully. It's no small feat to get individuals with completely different ways of viewing the world to understand each other.

According to Salvi, typically the most extroverted player will take the lead but the best ideas come from the most introverted team members.

If a leader does their job right, they will manage to “retrieve information from different minds, facilitating the bottom-up rising of ideas.”

“Suddenly, the problem will be seen under a new light as a Eureka! or Aha! moment.”

These obstacles are what make escape rooms so difficult and so addictive.

Red Bull TV will stream Red Bull Mind Gamers live across the globe on March 25, 2017.

For games and more informations visit RedBullMindGamers.com.

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