Escape rooms have gained enormous popularity over the past five years: thousands of rooms welcome players in dozens of countries, and the number is growing daily. But how did this fad catch on and what is the science behind it that drives people to spend their time and money trying to solve puzzles in order to get out of a confined space?

Escape Room in Budapest: Where it All Began

There are many versions as to who invented the breakout escape room as we know it, but whoever it was, they struck gold. The Independent ascribes the invention of the original concept to Hungarians: according to the publication, a Budapest local Attila Gyurkovics pioneered the fast-growing industry when he opened his first escape room in 2011.

What is important is that Gyurkovics was no stranger to psychology: a former social worker specialising in teamwork and communication, he was inspired by the concept of “flow” – “a mental state of creativity and hyper-concentration identified by Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi”.

The rest is history: within three months Gyurkovics opened his first breakout escape room in the Hungarian capital, and since then the craze has swept the world, from Japan to the US and everywhere in between.

More Than Just Having Fun

In a comment to Newsworks’ Art Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, claims that so-called “fast thinking” used in solving puzzles in an escape room helps release dopamine (a compound present in the body as a neurotransmitter that plays an important role as part of the reward system) that is correlated to positive thinking.

“One of the things that we know from a lot of research over the last 10 or 12 years is that the faster you’re thinking, the better you feel,” says Markman. Working on the problem in a group intensifies this effect: this “energy makes everyone in the group think faster and that actually elevates people’s moods.”

But fast thinking and the satisfaction it brings to players is not the only reason why people enjoy the seemingly childish entertainment of breakout escape rooms.

Kevin Swartout, a social psychologist and assistant professor at Georgia State University, told the Newsworks that people often behave differently and are more willing to speak up with opinions and expertise when they’re trapped in a room with the minutes ticking away.

“I think people in an escape room, when they know that there is a correct answer and the tasks are pretty specific, if they feel like they’re good at those tasks, like maybe it’s a spatial reasoning type task or solving an anagram, they might feel more confident and be more willing to speak up, whereas they wouldn’t in other circumstances,” explains Swartout.

What is important is that these changes in behaviour may have a lasting effect back in the office environment long after the game is over. People learn to see their co-workers in a different light, while the breakout escape room experience is capable of boosting self-esteem and confidence in otherwise shy players, transforming communication patterns within a group.

Escape Rooms As The Future of Education

It is no coincidence that the beneficial effects of the game have found various applications, including corporate team building activities and education.

Nicole Naditz, a high school teacher from Sacramento, California, incorporated the concept into her lessons, reports The Atlantic. She modified a game intended for adult players adding an educational twist: the students are required to use their knowledge of math, grammar, and science to unlock the codes and solve puzzles.

Atlantic also cites Scott Nicholson, a professor of game design and development at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada, who has been studying the evolution of escape rooms since 2014. He says  that unlike other forms of games where the player controls an avatar, escape rooms place the player directly into the game. “Because of that, the effects of experiential learning can be more effective, as there are fewer barriers between the player and the experience,” says Nicholson.

Additional Benefits to Other Areas of Life

Nicholson suggests that gamification of education may “help participants find a deeper connection to the underlying topic”.

That said, breakout escape rooms are much more than just a trendy form of entertainment. Based on psychological premises, they have the potential to revolutionise education, business processes and other fields of social life.

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