Why I design escape rooms for companies

Michiel van Eunen Michiel van Eunen

Last year I designed and played pop-up Escape Rooms with teams from different companies, ranging from telecom providers at KPN to coffee blenders at Douwe Egberts, from managers at Le Pain Quotidien to those at Mazda Europe and Schiphol Airport, and – mostly – for GM’s from Hotel collections like Accor, Apollo, and Carlton.

Every time I am amazed by what happens. Escape Rooms are the most impactful learning interventions I have ever used. I love to design them and I love to use them with teams from any company. Here’s why.

What is an Escape Room?

An Escape Room is a physical adventure game that locks a group of (3 to max 8) people into a room. By looking for codes and clues, solving puzzles and riddles, and especially by combining information, players have to leave the room within 60 minutes.

The first Escape Rooms opened about 10 years ago and from 2011 Escape Rooms rapidly started popping up in Japan and Singapore, soon followed by the US and Europe. Nowadays, there are thousands of Escape Rooms around the globe. Escape rooms are highly popular as indoor entertainment for small size groups. And not just because they’re ‘fun’.

At Performance Solutions, I developed the Reverse Escape Room – a pop-up Escape Room about Reverse Thinking – and at the moment I am designing one Escape room after another for our clients. I’m going to tell you why.

Why an escape room?

People learn by doing

This makes an escape room an ideal vehicle for gamification (using ingredients from games to trigger behavior). In an escape room, you are intensively playing for an hour; searching, puzzling, analyzing and deducing. But also: collaborating, convincing, leading and following and taking initiative. And you may add dynamics like communication, trust, flexibility, responsibility. Oh, and herd behavior, competition, stress and time pressure.

The beautiful thing is; when people are intensively engaged in an activity (flow), they’re not thinking about that. They are not concerned with how they should behave; they fall back on their natural behavior and patterns. If you register what happens in an Escape Room during one hour of playing, you will have a wealth of information about those players. Somehow, Plato already knew that 2400 years ago.


The power of the Escape Room is not just in the 60 minutes of intense play. It’s the part right after, that matters. The part where we look back and say: ‘What just happened ?!’

Depending on the time, the group and the development goal (or learning goal), we can look back at the Escape Room – at both individual and team level – through different lenses.

  • Content (in the case of the Reverse Escape Room: Reverse Thinking
  • Thinking different
  • Play versus work
  • Team / organizational culture
  • Team themes (cooperation, trust, communication)
  • Skills (problem solving ability, analysis, deduction, out-of-the-box thinking, working under time pressure)
  • Link with behavioral styles (eg: emergenetics, insights, MBTI)
  • Link with leadership styles
  • Link with elements from the organization’s blueprint

Experiences in the Escape Room are the frame of reference; We can assume that the behavior we have seen there is reasonably representative of how you operate ‘in real life’. (Or in ‘real work’, for that matter).

This can be at individual level (someone sometimes seems to be very good at joining ideas from others), at team level (someone often comes with good ideas but is ignored by the team) or at the level of company culture (at the beginning of The Escape Room takes everyone grabs a chair and they start a lengthy meeting to discuss the approach of the Escape Room)

To give you an idea; here are some quotes I always come across when observing an Escape Room:

A: ‘Hey guys I found this Wifi Router… Do you think…’

B: ‘…No, that probably belongs here’

C: ‘…No, I already looked. There is no code on it’

A: ‘This has to be the right code. It can’t be anything else…’

A: [After 30 minutes]. ‘This is impossible. We are never going to make it in time’

A ‘Hey, how are you doing on that word puzzle? After all, you are the puzzle girl here’

Using fresh and specific (and yes, sometimes a bit painful) examples from the Escape Room, makes behavior, patterns and company culture much easier to address. It can be a great starting point for change.

Even more if you know where you want to be.

Story and the illusion of influence

Michiel van Eunen Michiel van Eunen

One of the key aspects in gamification is the ‘illusion of influence’; to give the player the idea that she can affect the nature, development, condition or outcome of whatever she is manipulating. Any form of interaction is always more memorable and more interesting than just ‘receiving’ information. So where does this leave ‘story’?

yellowYesterday I visited the Art of Brick exhibition with my six year old daughter. I was amazed by the great works of Lego brick-art by Nathan Sawaya, and was inspired by his story: He gave up his job as New York attorney in 2004, to go – as he told his boss – ‘play with bricks’. When I asked my daughter what she liked most about the exhibition, I was actually not very surprised when she answered ‘playing with lego’. (The last room of the expo was a playing room full of tables with Lego bricks, where inspired kids & parents were creating their own great pieces). I tried a second time: ‘What did you like besides playing with the bricks?’. ‘Using the storymachine’, she replied. audiotourIn every room she would walk up to the sign next to an object and punch in the depicted code on her audioguide, resulting in a short explanation. ‘Ok, and what Lego statue or painting did you like the most?’, I tried. ‘Eeeehm…. ‘. She couldn’t think of one.

When I develop a game or an event, I always make a big deal of creating an engaging backstory. First line of input is usually the ‘dry information’. It could be a learning goal,  a commercial goal, a mindset, a specific task or a type of behavior change. As a gamification designer I could use any game mechanic or off the rack gamification ‘solution’ to create interaction. But for the interaction to be both effective and meaningful, I find it extremely inspiring to use a great story. This could be a pratical case, an archetypal character, an appealing theme or a famous legend.


When I use a setting like ‘Robin Hood’, the context is immediately clear to the players; There is a hero (Robin Hood) there is a team / are teams of players (Robins gang), who all have their own competences and there are clear goals (steal from the poor & give to the rich, get lady Marian, annoy the Sheriff of Nottingham). The  joint reference makes it easy to relate to the story. From here I can create puzzles, games, challenges & interactions that are meaningful to the players and relate tot the original goal (or ‘dry information’).

For example, if a company would ask me to devise a teambuilding game in which coworkers should work together, I would make a ‘Robin Hood’ spinoff in which they have to work together to steal from a revenue officer driving a coach loaded with gold through their forest. By doing so players are easily inspired and activated, and often surprised by (hidden) competences of their selves and other players.
I’ve been using ‘story’ in this way for 10 years in my eventcompany, and this is what I notice time after time: Story is the perfect way to translate ‘dry’ objectives into active and meaningful experiences & interactions that have a lasting effect. Meaningful interaction has the biggest ‘I‘, which stands for Influence; For the amount of Impact that you have on the world around you, or your thoughts, and of any outcome.