What my team learned in a virtual escape room 

The opening animation was fun, but then we shared a Google Drive folder.
The opening animation was fun, but then we shared a Google Drive folder.
Image: Courtesy Puzzle Break
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Lockdown orders around the world have forced businesses that rely on face-to-face exchanges to think deeply about what they’re selling, if only to figure out how to capture the essence of the experience in a new, virtual form. Why do people go out for a meal, anyway? What are you seeking when you buy a ticket for a magic show? How easily will customers accept remote versions of things they’ve only ever done in person?

When the pandemic erupted, Nate Martin, founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, a Seattle company behind several escape rooms in the US, was among those left to ponder such questions about his own brand.

Washington state was the first Covid-19 hotspot in the US, reporting community transmission and deaths from the novel coronavirus in late February. Puzzle Break’s sales slowed to a trickle even before non-essential businesses were closed. Financially speaking, Martin found himself in “a slow-motion nightmare,” he says. He would soon be furloughing most of his staff.

As the inventor of an escape-room empire, he was naturally under some pressure to solve this riddle, to liberate his business model from its ties to real estate (some on cruise ships) and gatherings in confined spaces.

Fortunately, Martin already had one clue about how he could move forward. And now he has pulled it off, creating a virtual escape experience (“We’ve graduated beyond the ‘room,’” he tells Quartz) that has been selling out online. My co-workers and I were invited to sample the game on a recent Friday. Here’s what we learned.

It’s not about the trap, it’s about endorphins

The game we played was called The Grimm Escape, and it was a modified iteration of one of Puzzle Break’s most popular off-site experiences. (In addition to running immersive escape rooms, the company also takes portable forms of its games to places like hotel ballrooms, for big corporate events; pre-coronavirus, Puzzle Break’s bookings were divided almost evenly between consumer and corporate clients, the latter including companies like Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Airbnb.)

Rather than dazzle customers with the special effects available in an actual escape room, the off-site games rely on printed images and cards or tiny props to tell the puzzle’s backstory. In other words, Martin and his staff already knew how to mimic a physical escape experience. The portable version’s success, Martin says, proved to him that the real draw in his product is the addictive endorphin rush that follows solving a problem.

The founder of a company like Puzzle Break would say something like that, to be sure, but I also found it to be mostly true as we played.

I should confess that I haven’t tried an escape room in real life, so I don’t have that baseline experience with which to make a proper comparison. I also should note that I find intentional team-building exercises corny and patronizing. (Can’t adults just bond over a cup of coffee?) In a pre-game pep talk, however, Martin promised that The Grimm Escape wouldn’t feel like an online equivalent of the dreaded trust fall. “We’ve tricked the world,” he said. “We’ve created a team-building experience that actually builds relationships and strengthens these bonds, and we’ve put the proverbial pill into this delicious food, because it’s the most fun thing.”

Reader, he was right. At 60 minutes (plus about 15 minutes of instructions beforehand) the game lasted long enough to create some separation from our virtual office, and exercising our brains in new ways was energizing.

It came as a surprise to all of us when the hour was up and we needed a hint or two from Martin, who served as our host, to take us over the finish line. (He assured us that hints are part of the game and would not put an asterisk on our team victory.)

The magic of Zoom and Google Drive

If I was pulled into the Grimm experience, it was despite a graphic interface that was in no way transportive. Apart from some basic animation and dramatic mood-setting music at the start, my colleagues and I were in a Zoom call like any other.

Our job was to solve various types of puzzles—some required logic, others divergent thinking or decoding—to eventually uncover the words for a magical spell and “win” within the hour. Each challenge could be found in a Google Drive folder, which we viewed simultaneously thanks to the magic of screen-sharing.

Martin assures me that Puzzle Break’s next virtual game—in which the players will be resistance fighters facing off against a corrupt corporation—is being designed specifically for Zoom, taking advantage of what’s possible when players are distributed.

He has by now brought back all of his previously furloughed employees as curators for the Grimm Escape and as inventors of future products for the new remote work era.

The types of teams that succeed at puzzle-solving

Puzzle Break—and presumably its equally well-reviewed competitors—successfully preserves another key to the real-life experience, which is the opportunity, if you take it, to reflect on your team dynamics and personal problem-solving styles. (We were a team of six, but according to Martin, corporate teams of 100-plus players are among those signing up for the experience.)

People who work together usually turn up at real-life escape rooms for one of two reasons, Martin says: either to help bring a group closer together, or to hold a mixer where everyone from the CEO to an intern can solve problems on a totally level playing field. (Every puzzle exercise can be solved with only the information that’s already on the screen.)

No matter why they’re playing, he says, teams that succeed always have a couple of traits in common: They listen to each other, and they share information. Age, gender, life experience—none of that matters in terms of the outcomes, he says.

The most valuable players, meanwhile, are those who spit out their observations without knowing whether they mean anything, and who pay attention to others doing the same thing, because often it takes two or more half-baked ideas to lead a team to the answer.

For some people, it can take courage to voice seemingly useless thoughts, particularly for those in professions oriented toward answers and deep expertise, Martin has found. However, it’s necessary in these group games to practice being humble, he says. This jibes with research from Google and elsewhere about successful teams: They require psychological safety, which comes from openness and kindness, not individual heroism.

Tell me how you puzzle and I’ll tell you who you are

Generally speaking, the way you approach the puzzle can also illuminate something about your approach to work, too.

Probably because I’ve been on the same team for a few years, I was comfortable not filtering my flawed ideas as they came to me—which led to us to the right answer in one case. But I also found myself needing to mute my beloved colleagues a couple of times to stop my thoughts from ping-ponging between their utterances, and to work on a puzzle alone. It was similar to the moments when I need to turn off my instant messaging to focus on deep work.

My colleague Sarah Todd, meanwhile, noticed the way she allowed the team to push her to keep trying. “I was thirsty for clues whenever we hit a challenge that I didn’t understand,” she told me. “Playing the game made me appreciate how valuable it is for me to have colleagues whose instinct is to power through and just try a little longer; they encourage me to do the same, even when it doesn’t come naturally.”

And our manager, Heather Landy, found a rare opportunity to easily blend work and home life together: She invited her 12-year-old daughter to the game, something she likely would not have done if this were an after-work office outing to an actual escape room. Izzy appreciated the hour of entertainment during an otherwise boring day under lockdown, and we appreciated her puzzle-solving skills, which helped us find the spell we needed to beat The Grimm Escape.