In March of 2016 escape rooms hit the national press. Now Barnum told us there was no such thing as bad publicity but just how true is that? The UK’s Independent carried the headline “Disgust over Anne Frank themed escape the room game”. The Games creators, Escape Bunker, according to the Independent were forced to apologise although, to date their website is still carrying the Anne Frank Game. In fact they now have a new game opening soon called “Operation Market Garden”. The history buff among you will recognise this as the name for the failed allied attempt to liberate the Netherlands in 1944. There were between 15000 and 17000 allied casualties. Like most war themed games immersive entertainment is a difficult path to navigate. I, like many, love a historical link to a game. A Cold War game in Berlin (http://www.the-room-berlin.com/de/the-room), a code breaking game at Bletchley Park (http://www.agreatescaperoom.com/) or an Alcatraz escape in San Francisco ( http://questroomsf.com/) but when is it too soon for some historical theme games?
Today, I read of an escape room in Greece based around the idea of escaping from Auschwitz. The text of the game stated ” “In frozen Poland, the walls of the crematorium of the infamous Nazi concentration camp for prisoners, primarily of Jewish origin, still reek of burnt human flesh, they say. Take on the role of a prisoner still looking for signs of life from loved ones, dare to stay in the shadow of the historic crematorium, discover the big secret and escape before you, too, turn into ashes.”
Thankfully the creators saw the incredibly offensive error of their ways after some negative publicity closed it. It did however get me thinking about the appropriateness of some rooms. Earlier I mentioned an Alcatraz themed room in SF, no problem there, but how about one based around the Earthquake of 1906? Sounds cool at first maybe, then you start to ponder the 3000 people who died in it. How about a room in Budapest, next to the House of Terror, based around the 1956 uprising. Again, it could be amazing but then you think about the 2500 Hungarians that were killed and the 200000 who fled as refugees as a result. How about a witch themed escape room in Salem or a nuclear war themed room in Hiroshima? I was designing a room back in April around the idea of a creepy attic. My partner and I thrashed out the issues of taste concerning the plot line of the disappearance of a child. We had a similar conversation over the plot line of an imminent bomb explosion given the current climate of terrorism.
And what about an escape room getting too political? If you want to hit the head lines do a game feature Islamic fundamentalism or the IRA. I have no doubt a Donald Trump themed room is just around the corner. Escape Artist DC has an unusual game based around you taking on the role of an alternative energy lobbyist. Not suitable for climate change deniers.
Some Escape rooms certainly have age appropriate issues. Hell in a Cell http://bristolhorrorescape.com/ looks genuinely terrifying whilst Odadan Kacis has the option of choosing between thriller or horror for many of their games. If horror isn’t your thing then maybe “entering the world of passionate orgy” might do it for you, http://blackcatescape.pl/en/sex-room-en/”Client visited us and indicated that he was a victim of a blackmail by women with whom had sex. Unknown group of people requests from him 100,000 pln for not revealing compromising him of amoral nature. We decided as an office to take up the job and to check blackmailer’s apartment.” This room in Warsaw currently has 11 5* reviews on Trip Advisor.
So which themes are off limits? Could escape rooms tackle difficult subjects in an educational way that actually teaches us important lessons. Could you ever build a room that helps humanity understand evil or genocide in a genuinely meaningful or educational way without trivialising it? I some how doubt it and the trauma it would cause would surely make it a mental health concern due to the emmersive nature of the room. No answers here except this. Escape rooms aren’t art, they are commercial enterprises that need mass appeal.