On the day the Peters Township Public Library in McMurray, Pennsylvania, was supposed to unveil a superhero-themed escape room, the library had to close its doors due to the coronavirus pandemic. With no physical location to work with, librarian Sydney Krawiec started to devise an alternative: a digital escape room created in Google Forms.
In the space of four hours, she made a Harry Potter-themed game that sent participants through a series of challenges based on locations from the book series, and they had to find their way out by solving puzzles. The Google Form went viral. And after other librarians saw it, they decided to make their own.
Through these virtual escape rooms, librarians have been able to serve their communities, as well as those living far outside of them, by giving people something to do while stuck at home. These digital challenges have become a tool for teaching and homeschooling, librarians say, as well as a device for staff development and team building.
“I know there’s a lot of parents, especially early on when we were all starting to work from home, who were just overwhelmed with trying to find things to keep kids busy during the day or trying to keep teens from just playing basic video games all day,” says Morgan Lockard, a librarian at Campbell County Public Library in Kentucky, who has made five digital escape rooms so far.
Completing these games is kind of like doing an online personality quiz, but with puzzles mixed in. You solve a series of problems, ranging from math equations to digital jigsaws (normally through an external link), with descriptions telling the story of what you’re seeing in these rooms as you progress through the game. The format is pretty bare and simplistic: pages will be decorated with a photo or video or two, some description, sometimes a link, plus a couple of questions with either multiple choice responses or an answer field. There is an element of it that feels like an academic test: when you answer a question, you wait to see if you’re wrong or right. When you solve a puzzle correctly, you get the satisfaction of moving forward and reading the next beat in the story.
Escape rooms have become increasingly popular in libraries over the past few years. Krawiec had hosted two physical Harry Potter-themed escape rooms before she made the superhero game, and she was even asked about making these in-person challenges as part of her interview for working at the library. Many of the librarians who have been making these Google Forms were in charge of hosting physical ones for children, teenagers, and adults, too.
The digital format actually came from an academic setting for Krawiec. She first made a Google Form escape room when she taught eighth grade math and algebra.
“I had an end-of-the-year review in Google Forms,” she says. “That was a digital escape room, but it was Algebra 1-based and people wanted to escape it for various reasons.”
By going through the games, players develop their problem-solving and reading comprehension skills, Brooke Windsor, a librarian at Richmond Hill Public Library in Ontario says. She’s made several escape rooms, including ones themed around Star Wars, Marvel superheroes, and Jurassic World. In addition to honing those skills, the problems and puzzles often involve geography or math.
“We still want to sneak in that learning, broccoli-in-the-brownie style,” says Windsor.
These activities provide a vehicle for teachers to get students interested in different subjects. Lockard says that her ancient Egypt-themed escape room is used in history classes, and her space-themed one is used by science teachers and Girl Scouts groups.
The Google Forms can also serve as a jumping-off point for students to learn more. A guide for Lockard’s space escape room contains links for additional information and facts students can look up. The game itself involves a little bit of googling on the part of the participant, which is meant to build research skills.
Lockard says she tied her latest escape room, based on fairy tales, to her library’s summer reading program because these games can also be a way to encourage students to read. Windsor says she tries to base her challenges off of books, like the Percy Jackson series, for this reason.
“I know that’s very old-school librarian, but we are librarians,” Windsor says. “We are pushing our books and our literacy.”
There are, as expected, some drawbacks when it comes to translating escape rooms to the digital format. Google Forms doesn’t save your progress, so if you accidentally close out or navigate away from the form, you’d have to start the game over from the beginning. The answers are case-sensitive, so participants have to keep that in mind. Since the puzzles are often based on pictures, the activities may not be accessible to people who are visually impaired. Both Krawiec and Windsor say they worked with instructors who teach students with visual impairments to develop more accessible versions, like those that don’t rely on pictures, so that participants can solve the puzzles after hearing them through a screen reader. A text-based version of Krawiec’s game is available on the Peters Township Public Library website.
Librarians aren’t alone in bringing these sorts of challenges online. One escape room company, Puzzle Break, made two escape rooms that are entirely virtual and can be played over a video call. Another company, The Escape Game, sends an employee wearing a camera to a physical escape room and has players on a video call navigate them. The industry stands to suffer large losses because of the pandemic — an escape room company can generate $125,000 in annual revenue, provided it sells out most weekends, according to a 2018 New York Times report.
But Google Forms has offered an easy way for people to make their own — and it’s not only librarians. Dave Murphy, a radio producer based in the United Kingdom, has started his own digital escape room business in quarantine, charging £8.99 for each game.
Cordelia Hsu, a student and journalist, saw Krawiec’s challenge and decided to put together her own Harry Potter Google Form escape room with her friend James Irvine. They held a competition among Quidditch groups in Australia to see who could complete their game the fastest, which caught the attention of teams in Germany and the United States.
“It’s the first time I’ve even tried anything like this, and it was very satisfying,” Hsu says. “And it kind of challenged my brain in a way that my brain was kind of lacking that challenge during isolation.”
Windsor says escape rooms have also allowed librarians to reach more people than they expected. “It’s not just our immediate community,” she says. “It’s the world community. And I think that if that isn’t librarianship’s ultimate goals, then nothing is.”