Published on May 21st, 2017 | by Dean Love


Social anxiety and escape rooms

Recently Escape Crusaders posted an interesting article on escape rooms from the perspective of someone with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, and why it is, perhaps counter-intuitively, beneficial in escape games.

It made me realise that a major part of the appeal of escape rooms to me likely stems from my own social anxiety. It’s not something I talk or write about much, and I’m also aware that I really don’t have it that bad: generally I can function okay in the world at large – just huge parts of it make me pretty uncomfortable. To give you an idea: to this day, if I have to make a phone call to a stranger, or speak to a shop attendant, I find myself constantly rehearsing in my head the words I’m going to say. I’ll easily spend ten minutes searching for something in a shop rather than asking an assistant if they have it. And the introduction of automated tills in supermarkets was a genuine increase in my quality of life.

For me, that anxiety comes from not being entirely sure what to say, or a fear of saying the wrong thing. I’m better in scenarios where I understand what the expected social script is. I’m terrified of scenarios where I don’t.

So how does that fit in with escape rooms? Two ways. Firstly, at a very high level the concept of an escape room is that you’re in a space where you can do absolutely anything. Yes, there are generally a few simple rules about not touching electrical sockets or smashing anything up, and the top level social conventions still apply (don’t get naked, piss all over the room and start chanting ethnic slurs) but outside of that there are no bad interactions. Sure, there are incorrect interactions, but those are also expected interactions: the game expects you to try all sorts of things to find the right method. Plenty of people in my life are baffled by the fact that I’m as “shy” as I am and yet am perfectly confident performing stand-up comedy to a room of strangers. It works the same way: in stand-up there is a different social contract – the audience is expected to be quiet and listen to me, and within reason I can do what I want. Yes, just as I can come up with an incorrect way to solve a puzzle, my comedy could be painfully unfunny. In that case I’ve failed, but going in to an open mic night, we all knew that was a possibility. (And yes, I can get heckled, but it’s fairly easy to plan for those interactions with a few pre-prepared put-downs also). Way back when I actually gigged regularly, I found it far scarier introducing myself to the promoter at the start of the night than going on stage and telling jokes.

In much the same way that standing on a stage with a microphone frees you up to do what you want, being in an escape room is also very freeing. It lets you spend an hour literally playing in a space where any interaction is valid and you’re not judged. Arguably that’s somewhat false: most games have someone watching you via camera and they might well be laughing at you behind it, but you’ll never know, so it doesn’t matter. When it comes to anxiety it’s perception, not reality, that counts. This is also why my favourite rooms are those where clues are delivered automatically when you need them. I’m less keen on those where you have to speak over walkie-talkie to a host, and find those games where the hint system is “press a button and the host comes in and asks you about where you’re stuck and gives you a hint” quite painful. For me, those games generally boil down to “am I stuck enough that I need to stop having fun and deal with a human interaction?”

It’s also why I tend to steer clear of horror games that involve live actors. I’m not afraid of the horror element ,just terrified by the idea that someone is going to turn up whom I need to have an interaction with, when I’ve no idea what that interaction is meant to be. Run away screaming? Sure? But if I don’t do that, what happens? He can’t actually kill me, I can’t actually fight him. It’s just so… awkward. And social awkwardness is terrifying. There are of course exceptions to this. Trapped In A Room With A Zombie bypasses any of those worries by clearly defining the interaction with the zombie: he’s on a chain, the chain gets longer every few minutes, if you get caught you have to sit out. That I can deal with easily enough, as the way it all works is pretty clear.

(One interesting side-note here is that I imagine I’d find a room which had fail states less enjoyable – if it really was possible to have a bad interaction in the room which caused you to lose, and so required you to be very careful about how you interacted with everything, that might be quite daunting. But I’ve never seen a game really do this.)

I mentioned two ways that my social anxiety drives my love of escape rooms, and the second is a bit more obvious: it’s a place I can go out to with friends, where we can do an activity together without having to interact with strangers. There’s four qualifying points there: with friends, going somewhere, an activity together, and minimal interaction with strangers. Very few things actually manage all four of them. Yes, we can stay and home and play board games but it lacks the fun of actually leaving the house. We can go to the cinema but we’re not doing an activity together, we’re just watching a thing individually. We can go to the pub or out for a meal but it’s not really an activity. We can go clubbing or go do team sports but that means dealing with strangers. Escape rooms fill a niche there where other activities don’t.

The obvious caveat here is that it relies on the private ticketing model that most games in Europe use: you have the room to you and your friends exclusively, and don’t share with strangers. In the US, the prevailing model is public ticketing: you book tickets for a given slot and are grouped in with other people that book up to the maximum room size. Which is “better” is a whole other debate and one that I might cover at some point, but for me the private approach is a core part of the appeal. I’ll still play public rooms, but I doubt I’d be writing a website about escape games if that was the prevailing model here in the UK.

So does all this mean anything? Probably not. But it’s worth noting that some studies suggest that as much as 10% of the UK population suffer from some sort of social phobia. Escape games have been hugely successful in the UK and it might just be a coincidence that they’re the ideal activity for those of us who do. Or it might be that there’s a huge under-served market there that’s being tapped in to. There’s certainly anecdotal evidence that rooms in the UK which broke some of the conventions I’ve mentioned above have struggled: Escape Quest’s live-actor horror game Bad Clown closed down and was re-opened without the live actor element, and Enter The Oubliette in London had live actors and a public booking system and did surprisingly poorly for a game that reviewed so well. But other games with such elements like Lady Chastity’s Reserve and Escapologic’s 13utcher continue to do well.

So we don’t really know, and we may never know. All I can say for sure is that for me, it was certainly a big factor in why I got so into these games, even if I’d never really realised it.

About the Author

Dean is a professional writer who has worked for The Mail On Sunday, The Digital Fix, MicroMart and others.

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