Escaping the Archive: using archives to inspire educational escape room games – Robin Sampson, former Archivist at the University of the Arts London

Escape room games are a modern cultural phenomenon that have grown hugely in popularity over the past decade. They are a popular leisure activity for groups of friends and are frequently used by organisations as team-building exercises. Many museums, libraries and archives have also introduced escape rooms into their programmes of events, as a method of introducing visitors to their holdings and services.

Archives and Special Collections Centre staff playtesting the escape room game developed from the Stanley Kubrick Archive
© University of the Arts London

As an archivist at the University of the Arts London, I felt that an archives-based escape room game could provide visitors with a fun and compelling introduction to the University’s Archives and Special Collections Centre (ASCC). Uniquely, the ASCC’s art-school setting would allow creative arts students the opportunity to research and engage with its holdings – which are focused on creative arts practice – in order to design, develop and build an escape room both inspired by and showcasing the University’s archives.

Escape rooms are cooperative games with an immersive fictional setting, where teams of players collaborate to solve linked puzzles and accomplish goals under strict time pressure. They are ideal for use in educational environments, as they encourage participation, information analysis and working together. Rather than passively absorbing information, participants actively problem-solve, debate and make connections.

One of the most significant collections in the ASCC is the Stanley Kubrick Archive (SKA), which comprises the working documentation of the famous director and showcases the enormous effort put into researching, scripting, designing, filming and editing his films. The SKA is a vast treasure trove of creative inspiration, and therefore provided the perfect source material for the game. I enlisted the help of a student on the University’s MA Games Design programme, and together we researched items from the SKA which could provide the basis for puzzles and clues.

Archives and Special Collections Centre staff playtesting the escape room game developed from the Stanley Kubrick Archive.
© University of the Arts London

The student used his expertise to assemble these puzzles into a linked structure that would allow the game to be played by a team of participants in an hour. We came up with a narrative theme that would immerse the players in the game. Conveniently, the ASCC search room was designed to resemble the “Hilton Space Station” set from Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and naturally a search room generally features security measures such as a lockable entrance and customer lockers, as well as numerous boxes, tables and a big screen. We therefore had a ready-made “science fiction” setting!

The puzzles were directly inspired by records from the SKA, including texts, photographs and film props, and these were reproduced in facsimile form to form pieces in the game. For example, a photograph of the set of Spartacus, featuring hundreds of extras carrying cards with numbers on (so Kubrick could direct them individually), was transformed into a jigsaw puzzle that needed to be assembled to find a code that would open the next locker. The student even used an archive floor plan of the set of The Shining to create a 3D virtual reality building that players could navigate on a laptop.

We play tested the game with the help of the ASCC staff, then rolled it out to students, college staff and the public, to provide a fun way of engaging with the archive holdings and hopefully inspire them to come back and research. We even developed a version that could be played simultaneously between two teams, introducing a competitive element where the first team to escape won the game. It has so far been a very successful output, and an entertaining complement to the workshops, tours and teaching sessions run by the team at ASCC. It also reflects the boundless creativity that archives can inspire, particularly in an educational setting.

Robin Sampson



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