Leaving the Table
If you’ve been reading the papers, you may have noticed an interesting new activity popping up across the country - Escape Rooms. The idea of an Escape Room is simple: around 10-20 people are locked in a room packed with puzzles; if they can solve all the puzzles within a certain time limit, they escape. Some Escape Rooms spice up this formula with zombies or werewolves or other dangers, but the basic idea remains the same: a room, a locked door, and a hidden key. Escape Rooms have been covered in the New York Times, Forbes, and Time Magazine, as well as countless local news organizations. New Escape Rooms are popping up from Maine to California, in cities and small towns, at conventions, parks, and cruise ships; here in Chicago, we’ve seen bars hosting Escape Room nights. Even the movie studios are starting to take notice: as part of promotion for the new Mission: Impossible, the production company created Escape Room pop-ups in LA, San Francisco, and New York, challenging you to “become a real IMF agent.” When the cynical money-machine of the movie industry takes notice, it signifies that something has become a Big Deal.
Carson Daly and Matt Lauer trying to finally escape the set of The Today Show
The growth of Escape Rooms has been exponential - in 2010, there were a handful of Escape Rooms worldwide, mostly in Japan; in 2015, there were over 2,800. Los Angeles and New York each claim around twenty-two different Escape Rooms, while Beijing has over 182. The businesses are enormously lucrative: one Room operator, Nate Martin of Puzzle Break, invested $7,000 in 2013 to open his first Escape Room; in 2015, they made over $600,000 in gross profit. These profits are a reflection of the growing public interest - SCRAP Entertainment, the de facto pioneer of Escape Rooms, recently held an event in San Francisco’s AT&T Park that drew 6,000 players in one day. Even smaller Escape Room operators are seeing rooms booked up for months at a time. Store shelves are not excluded: brainteaser-creators Thinkfun just produced a mass-market Escape the Room kit, which includes everything you’ll need to convince your friends to be locked in a room with you for an hour.
"The idea of the 'lone gamer' is really not true anymore. Up to 65 percent of gaming now is social, played either online or in the same room with people we know in real life." - Jane McGonigal
In the past two parts of this article, I talked about megagames, another form of large scale gaming that’s rapidly growing in popularity. Just recently, the Megagame Society hosted a charity game at PAX East that was a smashing success, which is incredible, as most tickets were sold based on word-of-mouth advertising. While their growth hasn’t been as grand as Escape Rooms, they have run 17 games in less than two years in North America alone; considering the monumental difficulty of preparing for an eight hour megagame (from my rough calculations, every hour of gameplay equals three to four hours of preparation) and the all-volunteer staff, this is like moving at light speed.
The PAX East Megagame - not pictured: control staff weeping in the corner
So, why is this suddenly so popular? How did nerdy activities like group puzzle-solving or role-playing an alien invasion break through to the mainstream?
Like any other cultural trend, it has to do with genealogy. Megagames, Escape Rooms - these aren’t unprecedented. Their DNA is the distillation of disparate elements from life, movies, books, and games. In the next few paragraphs, I’ll look at some of the progenitors of macrogaming and the ideas that we borrowed, stole, and spun to create them; more importantly, I’ll look at how these pieces have left a ripe cultural landscape for macrogaming to thrive.
When I was a kid, I loved the macabre. I voraciously read H.P. Lovecraft, I worshipped the writing of Stephen King, and my favorite TV show was The Twilight Zone. Thanks to my incorrigible older brother, I had seen the Halloween movies before I could read and my weathered Freddie Kruger glove was a constant presence in my pretend play. When I was about ten years old, I caught a Sci-fi channel rerun of a movie that blew me away. It was called Cube, and it was a take on one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”. Six people wake up trapped in a prison that’s made up of a seemingly-endless series of cube-shaped rooms. Each room is its own trap - some are motion activated, some are sound activated, and so on. Trigger the trap and you’ll die in some creatively grisly manner. As the characters explore, they deduce a numerical pattern to the rooms and realize the Cube is a large puzzle. It excited me because it was more than a typical horror flick - sure, there was gore, bad dialogue, and hammy acting, but it had a real mystery behind it; instead of the normal horror conceit of “monster chases and murders defenseless teens”, the only enemy here was math. By applying puzzle solving skills, the characters break out of their prison. This was a real coup for nerds like me - finally, a horror movie situation where I could survive till the end! It also sparked the creation of an endless stream of similar films, the most notorious of which is the Saw series.
As in Cube, Saw is primarily a locked-room mystery. The Dread Pirate Roberts wakes up chained to a bathtub. There’s a dead man in the middle of the room and a live one across from him. Over the course of the film, you realize these two men are part of a twisted game created by the serial killer Jigsaw, who uses the traps to test people’s mettle. After seeing the Saw films in theaters, my friends and I couldn’t stop talking about the puzzles - how would we solve them, what would you do differently, etc. As the Saw series progressed, the traps became more elaborate and gory, but it remained a series about puzzles. The public certainly noticed them - as of 2016, the seven films have grossed nearly a billion dollars worldwide. The resounding success of films like Cube and Saw gave the public a hunger for locked-room puzzles - after all, who hasn’t watched a horror movie and wondered how they would do in the same situation? Escape Rooms give you a chance to figure out the answer to that question. In the same vein, one can trace a path from movies like Independence Day and Contact to the alien-on-human action of megagames like Watch the Skies. We are essentially participating in a fan-fic version of Independence Day, and really, who wouldn't want to have great hair and make rousing speeches like President Bill Pullman?
An important feature of macrogames is that they allow you to be the protagonist of your own story, and as humans, that excites us. We love playing the Prime Mover. In modern life, we’re not often presented with challenges outside the norm. Without these challenges, people tend to judge themselves based on their reactions to repeating circumstances - not succumbing to road rage on the commute, learning to deal with a troublesome boss or co-worker, walking more than 10,000 steps a day, eating healthier, etc. We constantly assure ourselves that these decisions are Big and Important, but there’s always that unrelenting desire to do more. We rarely get to test our higher-level skills - focus under pressure, leadership, risky decision-making, diplomacy - and when we do, it tends to go unrecognized or gets marginalized. In a macrogame, however, you get to step outside of normal life and experience something that tests those skills in a very visible way. Suddenly, your puzzle solving skills aren’t just a neat trick - they’re the thing that will get you out of the room. In a broader sense, this plays on the modern cultural focus on the importance of the individual. In an era of Facebook and the personal brand, a game that exemplifies each participant and gives them an important role to play where they can showcase their personal skills - that’s practically a habit-forming drug. By nurturing this desire to craft your own story and be the hero, macrogames satisfy our eternal, unyielding boredom with normal life - perhaps humanity's strongest addiction.
Live Action Role Playing (LARP)
Macrogames are large-scale immersive experiences that contain elements of tabletop games, role-playing, puzzle-solving and social interaction. This isn’t a new concept by any means. Nerds have been LARPing (think foam swords and capes) since the late 70s, but it has always been considered a “fringe” activity; for a long time, even the tabletop kids thought LARPers were weird. After all, they would go out to a field dressed up like vikings or wizards and fight each other to the “death” with foam weapons and sandbag magic missiles; they had complex social politics, structured “worlds”, created languages, and rules for combat that seemed incomprehensible to outsiders. It was confusing - they seemed wholly invested in it, without any hint of self-conscious hesitation. Tabletop gamers wondered why the LARPers would leave the safety and convenience of the game room for all this pomp and circumstance; folks who weren’t into gaming were even more bewildered, leading to a lot of unfortunate bullying and misrepresentation of LARP culture - yet the LARPers continued on unabated, safe within their own worlds.
“Most of the people you see going to work today are LARPing an incredibly boring RPG called "professionalism" that requires them to alter their vocabulary, posture, eating habits, facial expressions - every detail all the way down to what they allow themselves to find funny.” - Cory Doctorow
I’m here to tell you to enjoy the day, LARPers. You were way ahead of the curve. The idea of large-scale immersive role-playing has carried over into these macrogames, whether it’s playing the heads of countries in Watch the Skies or the implicit conceit of Escape Rooms - that you’re actually trapped in some mad scientist’s lab, or a zombie-filled apartment, or etc. By entering the staging area, we are all consciously engaging in group theatre. Inside these megagames and Escape Rooms, we build self-contained worlds that have their own rules, logic, and roles; we immerse ourselves in the experience to the point of overriding normal phobias and fears. You know you can escape the room at any time just by asking, but usually, people don’t do that - no matter how intense the game gets, they stay in. It’s transformative: in megagames, I’ve seen the shy become flawless negotiators, the timid become vehement demagogues, and the selfish become team players. As in LARP, the rooms become a new world where we can shed our normal skin. There’s a real freedom in this idea. I think people need places like this - there’s a very good reason that Planet Fitness advertises itself as a “judgement-free zone”. It’s why people go to group therapy or post anonymously online - so they can be true and honest, even if it’s only for a short time with people they don’t know. By immersing ourselves in a macrogame, we can drop our defenses and rest easy in the knowledge that everyone else is doing the same. After all, if we’re all nerds, then maybe none of us are.
Adventure Game Shows
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” - Shirley Jackson
Visit an Escape Room or go to a megagame, and you’ll find that the main demographic is that coveted golden calf of marketing, the 18-34 year old crowd. These are the people who grew up in the late eighties and nineties - Generation Y, the Net Generation, or, as crotchety old writers like to hiss between their teeth, Millennials. A lynchpin of our childhoods was the adventure game show, the best of which was Legends of the Hidden Temple. Teams of kids are sent into a massive maze designed to look like a Mayan temple, complete with a giant talking stone head named Olmec. They must complete a series of challenges, like crossing a moat, answering historical trivia, and racing against time to grab certain artifacts from the maze. Along the way, rolling boulders, giant wall-fists (I really don't know how to explain that any better), and masked men would pop out to try and stop them. It was basically American Gladiators for children, but kids liked Legends of the Hidden Temple more because it didn’t present itself as a game show - it presented itself as an adventure, and everyone got to be Indiana Jones.
Olmec always looked hella stoned (sorry)
You can find a similar thread running through macrogames - they offer a sense of exploring the unknown, something that can be sorely lacking in modern life. Unless you’re lucky enough to snag an adventurous job, most of our lives are spent running up against the same challenges, experiences, and problems day after day. It’s the reason people take vacations - we just need something different once and awhile. It’s the reason why the explorers of old looked at the vast blue expanse of the Atlantic Ocean and decided to sail off into it. Macrogames give you a place to work out this desire that doesn’t involve going somewhere far away or spending oodles of money. Just like Legends of the Hidden Temple or The Crystal Maze, we can enter a situation where something unexpected lies around every corner. We can be mini-Magellans, filled with hope and excitement and steely resolve for the unknown challenges that lie ahead. When you leave a macrogame, you feel it: the sense that you’ve done something extraordinary and unusual. You can feel it when you talk to people about your experience and see the intrigue in their eyes. It’s rare that we experience this sense of wonder in life, but macrogames can give us a small taste of it, and considering our typically busy schedules, it can scratch that itch pretty well in a short amount of time.
Macrogaming is the next grand step in gaming. I don't think of myself as some sort of gaming prophet, but the writing on the wall is clear. Escape Rooms and megagames are becoming more popular by the day; the numbers speak for themselves. I've had the wonderful luck to work closely with the Megagame Society, and their brilliant and bizarre ideas for future games speak to the untapped potential of the format. Macrogames could be so much more. I can easily see a future where teachers incorporate macrogame concepts in the classroom, using the games to strengthen teamwork and creative problem solving in an engaging way. Businesses can use them to identify natural leaders and decision makers among employees. Instead of going to a football game or a spa on a Saturday morning, a group of friends might choose to go to an Escape Room instead. I can see a situation where Escape Rooms aren't just fun, but therapeutic - you have to admit, marriage counseling involving an Escape Room would be a helluva sight.
“It may be that all games are silly. But then, so are humans." - Robert Lynd
Their popularity also speaks to a positive trend - gaming isn't the marginalized hobby that it was fifteen years ago. While videogames have already achieved mainstream saturation, other forms of gaming have still been pushed to the wayside. Tabletop gaming has come into its own in the past ten years, thanks to the popularity of Catan, Ticket to Ride, and shows like Tabletop, but the success of macrogames is indicative of a rapid sea change in public opinion towards games and gamers. Writers no longer approach games with a sense of detached irony; even terms like "nerdy" and "geeky" have taken on positive connotations. Much like the "poptimism" movement in music, which exposed the often elitist overtones of music criticism, people are finally admitting that it's okay to be excited about the games you're into, even if that involves dressing like a wizard and throwing sandbags at a knight in cardboard armor, spending hours solving puzzles in a locked room, or pretending to save the world in a lab coat you bought online.
So rejoice, nerds. Put on your best wizard hat, grab your papier-mâché staff, and go forth unashamed and enthusiastic. Who knows; in a few years, even your grandma might join you.