escapED: how to design interactive, live-action, game-based learning.

It’s been a while since my last post (sorry!) due to several work/life distractions. One of those distractions is what I’d like to share with you today; escapED. What is escapED I hear you cry? Well this is a new programme that we’ve been developing here at the Disruptive Media Learning Lab, to become a part of the Game Changers initiative. We’ve been working hard to get a prototype session up and running ready for next weeks; Coventry University, EEC Innovation Day for staff development.

So how does it work? Well, escapED is a programme to primarily aid the design and development of interactive, live-action, game-based learning (GBL) experiences. escapED has been adapted from traditional Escape Rooms and Live-action gaming experiences (think Crystal Maze and Knightmare and you’ve got the general idea) and has been given an educational twist. The beauty of escapED is that it can tick several boxes that other game-based learning applications cant and have struggled with before. I will say now that escapED will not be for everybody and will certainly not provide all of the answers for playful learning, however, I believe that this may be the start of a closer look at how we can bring GBL quickly and easily into higher/further educational establishments to provide more enjoyable and interactive learning experiences. Here are 11 reasons for believing this:

  1. It appeals to a wide audience (data indicates equal participation from both genders and a wide age range within traditional Escape Rooms play).
  2. It can be adapted to almost any subject through using puzzles and riddles to achieve desired learning outcomes. Want to create an interactive induction day for your students? No problem! Want to create a learning experience entered on engineering challenges? No problem! … you get the idea.
  3. It can help support Flipped and Disruptive learning techniques. Puzzles can become part of the experience of student-led learning.
  4. escapED can be designed to be multi-disciplinary and provide cross-collaboration opportunities, allowing staff and students to come together and put their skills to the test through a live-action experience.
  5. escapED can be made quickly and can be easily changed to reflect the needs of the learners. No programming necessary!
  6. Students and staff can make their own experiences to challenge their peers as part of the learning process.
  7. Players can develop their soft skills such as communication and collaboration as part of the experience.
  8. The only limit is the creativity behind the design and development of the experience. Themes, puzzles, props, actors… the list can go on depending on how low-key or detailed you want to make your experience.
  9. It doesn’t take as much time as you think! I won’t lie, there is an additional effort to creating these experiences, however, I believe the extra effort is worth the end result. Read from a powerpoint vs engaging with an object and real people to solve a problem… I know which option I would choose.
  10. People will be talking about it for ages. Did you get this puzzle? What was this about? How did you..? Seriously, in just one days worth of testing, the groups used for testing were buzzing long after the event discussing puzzles and riddles.
  11. Finally, its super fun! I mean really, REALLY fun. The DMLL is talking about visiting a traditional entertainment Escape Room in Birmingham for ‘Team Building’ and I can’t wait. Imagine engaging your students/staff so much that they “can’t wait” to take part in your next session.

Now I could go on about the benefits of adopting escapED as a paradigm for creating live-action game-based learning, but that is for you guys to determine yourselves. I shall be updating and writing about how the prototype goes after next week and will hopefully have some more concrete evidence to support escapED after the training event.

But before that, I would like to present the escapED framework that was developed to help create the prototype experience.

EscapED Framework-v2 white.jpg

escapED Framework – Samantha Clarke & Sylvester Arnab. 2016

As you can see, the framework is split into 6 main categories:

  1. Participants
  2. Objectives
  3. Theme
  4. Puzzles
  5. Equipment
  6. Evaluation

Within each section is presented some core themes that you may wish to explore/develop upon for creating your own live-action game-based learning experience. Let us break down the elements and discuss what each section means and why you should consider each sub-heading before development.

  1. Participants
  • User Type: Consider your intended players/users (Please see User Identity for a more detailed explanation. But the basic premise of this step is that staff may have different needs/expectations than students (learning objectives). Age and backgrounds can influence your decisions in making the game. Example: Media staff and students may be put off from lots of maths based questions (this actually happened during testing this week!). Use your initiative and make sure you consider your players to create truly enjoyable experiences.
  • Time: How long do you want your experience to take? Do you want a quick session to run no longer than 15 minutes or something that is more complex that could span hours, days, weeks…. etc. Setting this straight at the beginning will allow you to judge just how many/how complex your puzzles should be. There is no point in designing the next ‘DaVinci Code’ if you are only setting aside 15 minutes for the experience.
  • Difficulty: This is where consideration of your intended users should play a part. You might want to scale the difficulty of puzzles for different levels of players such as college students, undergrads, post grads, doctorates and staff. Alternatively you could create a series of experiences and label the difficulty as easy, medium, hard and super duper extreme mode, and allow your players to pick and choose what they would like to try (Im a fan of this approach as it gives the players some control of their experience).
  • Mode: mode = how is the room/experience supposed to be …well…experienced (like a time or a competitive mode in video games). Some suggestions for this as follows:

– Cooperation based: Players work together to solve/escape the experience.

-Competitive based: Players compete to be the first to figure out the objectives.

My modes are named as follows;

  1. Mode 1 – All by Myself: A personal experience, self-directed motivation for beating the experience.
  2. Mode 2 – Stand By Me (SK anyone?): Team-based experience which can either be a co-op or competitive session (multiple teams competing for best time/against each other).
  3. Mode 3 – Flipped Out: This mode brings in flipped and disruptive learning techniques to enhance the players experience. Example: Players can be given materials to review before coming to engage in the experience. Clues and hints to solving the puzzles can be hidden in these materials.
  4. Mode 4 – Whats in the box John?! (please tell me someone gets that reference): A single box/crate/briefcase can be used instead of a full blown room for recreating escapED as a table-top exercise.

Although I’ve given a short selection of modes, you can make up as many different modes as you like to fit your needs.

  • Scale: How many people are you planning to cater for with your experience? Its best to start off small but if you are feeling confident then there is nothing stopping you from creating experiences for 60+ people. However, a consideration of intended room size and area needs to be addressed at this stage.

2. Objectives

  • Learning Objectives: Just like any other lesson plan or learning experience, escapED requires some thought concerning what are the learning objectives that you are trying to achieve with the session? These objectives can be worked into the theme, its puzzles and mode to help structure the learning plan. Creating tangible learning objectives allows you to evaluate your players learning experience, learning achievements and iteratively re-design if needed at a later date.
  • Solo/Multi-Disciplanary: Will your experience be created to solve one fields discipline or multiple fields? Personally, i love the idea of bring in University students and staff in from a range of subjects and asking them to work together to solve the room. Puzzles could be designed to appeal to a wide range of types and backgrounds.
  • Soft Skills: Interactive live-action games are by their very nature, great for helping develop those soft skills such as communication and leadership. How will you challenge your players to develop these in your experience? In our prototype session we have the players split into two rooms with their only communication being Skype. Hilarious to watch and interesting to see how they communicate their rooms and puzzles to each other.
  • Problem Solving: What types of problem solving challenges are going to make the experience interesting to your players? Remember that all learners are different and therefore will enjoy a range of different challenges.

3. Theme

  • Escape Mode: As traditional entertainment escape room theme; get out of the locked room in a set time.
  • Mystery Mode: Solve the mystery in a set time.
  • Narrative Design: Whats the story morning glory? Er.. I mean, what is your experience all about? Is it Zombies? Sherlock Holmes? Crazed Tibetan Monks turned into Ninja Monkeys? Any theme that you choose needs to have a compelling story. Good story telling = happy, engaged players who want to know more about your experience.
  • Stand alone/Nested: Is your experience a one off session or part of a larger, nested experience that can run across months or a year? Nested experiences give a great opportunity to allow people to feel like they are working towards something greater but present a few challenges like maintaining player engagement across the time planned.

4. Puzzles

  • Puzzle Design: The challenging but fun aspect of creating your experience. Puzzles and riddles make your experience interesting and are ultimately what these experiences are about.
  • Reflect Learning Objectives: Refer to your learning objectives and theme to ensure that puzzles reflect the overall goals of the session.
  • Instructions/Manuals: Good experiences have clear, set instructions and rules. This is a good time to make a note of anything you don’t want your players to touch or to explain the nuances of your session. Integrating this with your theme can help to set the backstory of your experience. Do the players require extra instructions whilst playing? If so think about additional ‘manuals’ that can be made up to look like game props.
  • Clues/Hints: Everyone gets stuck once in a while, and good Escape Rooms are notoriously hard. Think about how you are going to give clues in the rooms (if at all) and how you would deliver hints whilst outside/away from the players. Playing a character can help so as not to break player immersion/fantasy. Hints can also be delivered directly via computer/phone to the players if needed.

5. Equipment

  • Location/Space Design: Location, location, location! It really does make an experience, especially if you are expecting to trap people together for a set about of time. Ensure there is enough space and it is comfortable to move around. It really goes without saying but i will anyway..don’t put your players anywhere, where there is a high possibility of them getting hurt and be conscious of your players well being. Other than that, make your environment as realistic as possible within your means. This will help foster player engagement and belief of your intended theme.
  • Physical Props: Puzzle props, red-herrings + general environment items, these are thing that you will need to make a compelling and workable experience. Imagine your experience is the same as a play, you’ve chosen your stage and now you need to dress it. Be wary of players who will try anything to complete your experience. (I’ve read one company had to use odd shaped screws to stop players from dismantling their game rooms!).
  • Technical Props: If you are thinking of using technology to enhance your experience then great! Computers, VR, Augmented Reality, GPS and location-based identification, can all really bring something to these experiences. The downside is that as with all technology, you run the risk of things going wrong/crashing/general not wanting to work/player unfamiliarity. Proceed with caution and ensure lots of testing with these elements, but when they work, get ready to see happy players.
  • Actors: This really is where I think cross-disciplinary works well. Imagine getting on board your University’s/College’s  drama department and letting them help create your experience. Need a zombie or a dying victim? Perhaps a hostage? Either way, having real-life actors helps concrete the experience further as believable. Actors can also be used as timer indicators or can give out hints if they see the players are getting stuck.

6. Evaluation

  • Testing: Now that you hopefully have all of your elements ready to create your game, spend some time testing with others before going live. You will most likely find (as I did) that I had created puzzles that were too hard to solve in the time that was intended. There were other puzzles that just made no sense and could only be known through testing. This gives you time to get feedback from testers and re-design what is needed before allowing the intended players to experience your session.
  • Reflection: You’ve now allowed your intended players to experience your session and it’s the moment of truth. Did they learn anything from your session? If so what? and more importantly did they have fun? What was the most interesting thing? What worked? What didn’t? How would they make it better? Talk about the learning objectives and did they feel that they achieved them? A focus group session/feedback sheet may be useful to help gather information.
  • Evaluate Learning Objectives: Here is the time to make a more formal evaluation of the learning objectives that you may have set for your experience. This can be done via your own preferred methods.
  • Adjust: Use the feedback to provide informed decisions on how to adjust your experience if so needed. This is a good opportunity to use iterative design and developing or action-led development to help refine your experiences.
  • Re-set: If you are running multiple sessions back to back, make sure you develop a re-set sheet. A re-set sheet is a list of all puzzles/riddles and intractable objectives within your experience that need to be checked over to ensure they are in the correct state before the next group. I can imagine nothing more frustrating than getting half-way through an experience to find something broken.

And there you have it, a very long and much over due post! As previously mentioned, I plan on updating next week after our first prototype session with some of the staff at Coventry Uni, ECC department.

Signing off.


11 thoughts on “escapED: how to design interactive, live-action, game-based learning.

    1. Hi Clara, so glad you like the idea of escapED! At the present Im not planning to turn this into an app as I use the escapED framework to help guide lecturers/higher education facilitators to creating their own live action games for learning. Maybe for the future though! Id be happy to have a chat with you further though if you have any questions 🙂


  1. Hi Samantha- this is very cool. I’m working on an open course for early 2017 with a mix of media creation, character creation, a mirror world, role play, civic imagination… my colleague and I have been talking to Helen K and she referenced your work (glad to have stumbled into this post via tweet)- a vague concept is outlined at

    We can use help! Hope we can connect.


    1. Hello! apologies for delay in getting back to you, this kind of got lost in the chaos! Helen did say about the wonderful things you were doing and id love to connect and do some interesting things together! Maybe we can set up a skype with Helen?


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