What do you do with an old storage room? With the help of a grant, around 40 kids, four months, and a lot of hard work and creativity, the Morton-James Public Library was able to transform a nondescript storage area into a real-life immersive puzzle game—Nebraska City’s first escape room (and the first escape room in the world built by kids, as far as we can tell).
Escape rooms are like real-life video games, in which players have to search for clues and solve puzzles in order to solve a mystery and escape the room within the allotted time. The need for problem solving on a tight deadline makes these rooms popular destinations for friends’ night out, as well as professional team building.
While replacing the library storage room’s old carpet, the idea of repurposing the space into something completely different arose. Inspired by the growing movement of escape rooms and Maker spaces, we applied for a Curiosity Creates grant from the American Library Association (ALA)/Disney to start “Library Lockdown.” The four-month program, which ran in spring 2016, involved a group of kids building an escape room from the ground up. The point of Library Lockdown was to generate positive hype, reinvent an unused space, and instill a sense of ownership of the library in our participants.
We advertised the program to local schools and community groups in November 2015. The program consisted of 90-minute workshops every Saturday from February to May. Though over 40 children (ages nine to 13) participated, there were generally 15-25 kids at each workshop.
During those workshops, we first solved puzzles and learned about locks. The children then chose the room’s theme—zombies—and wrote its backstory. They chose to make a zombie movie and in addition to starring in it worked on the script, costumes, and makeup. The movie introduces the room to players and provides an ominous countdown while they solve the room. Finally, we created all the puzzles and props.
We had one staffer and a core group of five volunteers dedicating time to the project. A significant amount of preparation went into the earlier sessions, but as time went on, the prep time decreased to around two hours per workshop. Most important was to determine what tasks would be worked on and how youngsters would be instructed and guided through the tasks. We considered:
- What are the goals for the session?
- How many volunteers do we have?
- How many groups will kids be divided into and how big should the groups be?
In addition to the time spent on the workshops, we devoted a good day or two at the end, testing every puzzle and making sure that everything came together in a meaningful way.
The modular approach
An important lesson we learned was to keep the puzzles completely modular. In a professional escape room, the puzzles are often sequential, but as we developed puzzles with the children, we realized having them be completely discrete would be more manageable. We wrote a software program to tie each puzzle into a coherent whole event.
The goal of our room was to retrieve the antidote from the safe (and cure all the zombies!). To get the PIN for the safe, players solve the puzzles to find the codes. Once enough correct codes have been typed into the computer (by default, eight of the ten puzzles must be solved), the program reveals the PIN to the safe.
This not only made the build itself easier but also allowed us to adjust the difficulty of our escape room on the fly. Have a group that wants a greater challenge? Require all of the puzzles to be solved. Have a puzzle that breaks or doesn’t work out? Simply remove it. The program we developed is available on GitHub for others to use and modify.
Something we found to be extremely valuable was pulling in members of the community to contribute to the development of the room. The chief of police appeared in our zombie movie, which was directed by a staff member from the local radio station. Teachers, artists, and parents lent a hand wherever they could, a local cook managed the lunches, and a restaurant donated several pizzas to the cause.
Library Lockdown was celebrated by locking the mayor, Bryan Bequette, and his family in the escape room. While waiting to see if they could find the zombie-antidote and save the world, the rest of us (kids, families, and community members) had a pizza party and played with puzzles. Those “locked down” made it out with less than five minutes to go!