October 21, 2015 / 12:46 PM / in 2 years

'Escape rooms' challenge Americans with puzzling adventures

People work to find clues and solve puzzles to escape from a Sherlock Holmes-themed escape room in Alexandria, Virginia, October 17, 2015.Joshua Roberts

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Dental lab technician Jon Choi and his friends celebrated his birthday this month under pressure: they were locked together in a small "escape room" and had to solve a series of puzzles to achieve their freedom within 60 minutes.

They finally made it out with one minute to spare.

Choi avidly plays computer games with the same set-up, but had never visited a physical escape room before. The experience was both fun and tough enough that he is now planning to try other similar rooms.

He has plenty of options. Escape rooms are the latest entertainment phenomena to seize the United States, where people break out of locked rooms using their smarts, or any that the friends, family members or strangers interred with them may possess. There are more than 100 across the country, according to the Escape Room Directory, charging between $20 and $30 for the experience.

In an era when socializing no longer requires real-time conversation and the answers to all life’s questions are a screen-tap away, those seeking to connect with others in person and use their own knowledge for intellectual challenges find the rooms refreshing. The concept has captivated Americans so much that the Science Channel created the game show “Race to Escape” around it.

Themes of the independently-owned rooms vary from place to place. In Pittsburgh, families are encouraged to share “bonding time” in the “Prison Escape” room. In Los Angeles, players can relive their city’s Raymond Chandler past in a room called “The Detective." 

Once the door is closed and the timer set, the first puzzle emerges. Its solution leads to the next puzzle. Clues are tucked all over the room, some in plain sight and others in secret compartments. Step by step, players solve the overarching mystery of the room.

For Choi and his friends at Escape Room Live in Alexandria, Virginia, that mystery revolved around fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.

"We looked up at the time and there was 10 minutes left and I was like, 'God!'" said Andew Kim, who was shocked when they finally cracked the mystery.

Maddie Churches, a game master at Escape Room Live, watches as people work to find clues and solve puzzles to an escape room in Alexandria, Virginia, October 17, 2015.Joshua Roberts

According to Escape Game Orlando, the rooms’ roots are in video games, with the basic idea of trapping a player in a single location first appearing in the 1988 game “Behind Closed Doors.” A real-life room opened in Kyoto in 2007 and the trend soon spread throughout Asia and Europe, according to the company. 

When Ginger Flesher-Sonnier started Escape Room Live a year ago in Washington, D.C. with a secret agent-themed room, she was surprised by the demand.

Within three weeks, Flesher-Sonnier, a former math teacher, had to create a second room at the site and within nine months she opened the Alexandria location featuring two Holmes-themed rooms. In August alone, 6,000 people visited both Escape Room Live locations.

Slideshow (11 Images)

So many people have tramped through that, after rent and salaries, prop storage has become the company’s biggest expense. It must have exact duplicates of all the puzzle objects ready to swap in every few weeks.

Flesher-Sonnier estimates 60 percent of visitors are millennials. Corporate team-building provides many customers and three men have popped the question by having engagement rings hidden in puzzles.

Few players solve the mysteries in time without getting hints from the game masters who monitor and run the rooms. They have seen that the puzzles bring out all sorts of quirks in people's personalities and relationships.

"I think strangers work the best. The reason why is you can't get mad at a stranger," the manager of the Alexandria location, Hop Dang, said. "Families - they don't hold back."

Dang attended his first escape room a year ago, thinking, "why am I paying someone to lock me in a room?" Now he often dreams at night about secret doors and hidden objects.

The world tends to look different to people once they have escaped, Dang said.

"Every thing that you see, you're going to try to open." 

Additional reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Jill Serjeant and Marguerita Choy

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