Stressed or Depressed? Try Room Escape Games

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Screenshot from Tomatea's Blue Cage

I’ve always enjoyed looking inside people’s homes, trying to get a sense of what the occupants are like from the objects that make up their environment. I don’t mean breaking and entering or snooping through bathroom cabinets, but, as someone’s guest, taking in my surroundings with the same eager curiosity I’d usually reserve for museums, piecing together a story from books, photos, plants and knick knacks on display. Part of that inclination comes from all the mystery stories I read as a kid. Using keen skills of observation and knowledge of human nature, detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Jane Marple solved the most bewildering of crimes, and still managed to have time for tea. What’s not to admire?

That same appreciation for a good mystery has also contributed to my long standing fondness for puzzles, the latest obsession being "room escape” computer games. Requiring a shorter commitment than many other point-and-click adventure games, room escape games have a very simple premise: you find yourself in a locked room or house and must search your environment for clues and solve puzzles to aide in your escape. Most often, the games are fairly simplistic in design, yet the puzzles are anything but. You may have to decipher a code, repeat a melody you just heard, or jury-rig a tool that would make MacGyver proud. If you crack the puzzles, you will find the key that will unlock the door and set you free, often with some beautiful garden or beach paradise awaiting behind the door.

Screenshot from the game Myst (Cyan, 1993) (Image via Wikipedia)
Screenshot from Myst (Cyan, 1993) (Image: Wikipedia)

While the Flash game room escape genre was popularized in the mid-2000s, most everyone I know who really enjoys these types of games can trace their fondness back to the 1993 PC game Myst. A beautiful game unlike anything being released at the time, it presented no monsters to kill and the player could take as long as they wanted to explore the island and solve puzzles. There is an appeal in a game that's stimulating, but also free of the competitive stress of player-vs-player environments, or the fast-paced action of first person shooters.

It's easy to find ourselves overwhelmed in a fast paced world brimming with information and daily stresses. Although escaping somewhere quiet and peaceful, and preferably in nature, is certainly one of the better ways to decompress, it's not always an option. If you're like me, a good way to unwind from the stimulation of a busy day is by focusing the mind on a calming task, kind of like going for a jog can be a great way to prepare your body for a better night's sleep. Room escape games, which often have well decorated environments and peaceful music on a loop, fulfill that need perfectly.

Screenshot from LoNyan's Room Escape No. 11

Wanting to quantify the beneficial aspects of casual games, PopCap Games underwrote a study in 2011 in which a group of participants - all diagnosed with clinical depression - played casual games over the course of a month. The resulting data showed an improvement in anxiety, anger levels and fatigue among the participants, as did an earlier study administered among the general population.


Another reason puzzle games appeal to so many is because they offer fixed solutions to problems, and steps taken in the game always bring you one step closer to a positive outcome in a reliable way that can't always be expected in our often unreliable real world. Dr. Marcel Danesi, author of the book The Puzzle Instinct said, "The satisfaction that comes from solving a puzzle seems to provide 'relief' from the large-scale puzzles inherent in everyday life."

While it may be something that's only popular within niche circles, the room escape game is being brought to reality by some event organizers, including Japan's SCRAP Entertainment, who've been hosting the game in San Francisco inside Japantown's New People center since 2012. Approximately 30,000 people have paid money to be locked in a room with others -- sometimes strangers -- and spend a full hour overturning furniture, emptying drawers, and collecting puzzle pieces that would uncover the key that would unlock the room's front door.

A Real Escape Room in Tokyo (Image: SCRAP Entertainment)
A Real Escape Room in Tokyo (Image: SCRAP Entertainment)

I recently took part in Escape from the Mysterious Room and it was worth every dollar and second, although I am sworn to secrecy and cannot tell you what awaited us inside. Although our team of 11 people made a valiant effort and were just one puzzle away from getting the key to let us out, we failed to find the solution before the time ran out. But even though we didn't make it out of The Mysterious Room on our own, unable to join the 2% who've actually succeeded so far, every single puzzle we tackled left us feeling a rush of adrenaline.

For SCRAP's game designer Kazu, that's the most rewarding part of organizing these games. "I always focus on how the puzzle gives you an 'A-Ha! moment' even if you couldn't solve it," he said, further describing the room escape concept as simply "universal."

So, if you find yourself unable to escape in reality but needing a break, you're just a mouse click away from a little game that can help.