Playing games…for Science!

For the past few days (and wrapping up today) I’ve been at the Science Museum of Minnesota as one of a team of advisors helping them on a future interactive exhibit on evolution, which I’m not going to tell you about, except to say that they have an ambitious schedule and maybe you’ll get to see it as early as this summer. One of the things we had to do yesterday is introduce ourselves with a 5 minute talk about what we can contribute to the project, and so I threw together a little something about my background and my experience as a teacher, yadda yadda, and because I could, I put up an illustration on YouTube to play on the screen behind me — so I used this one, which is just a general time-lapse of zebrafish development.

You have to picture me standing at the lectern, saying something like, “…and this is the experimental animal I work on”, clicking on the play button, and turning to wave gracefully at the screen…and discovering that YouTube had inserted an ad at the beginning, and that what I was pointing at was a shirtless, hunky, muscular man flexing and saying something about an exercise or diet program, I don’t know, because I was busy clicking on the “skip ad” button.

Now everyone has a much more exciting impression of my research.

Aside from that little misstep — do not trust YouTube to serve up your sober, serious videos — it’s been an enlightening experience. My colleagues here have an eclectic mix of skills, with theater people, professional game designers, and museum directors all contributing to the construction and critique of this coming exhibit. Our evenings have been spent playing games, looking for ideas that could be used to involve and inform the general public.

I have been introduced to escape rooms. I did not have the slightest inkling these even existed until this weekend. I guess I’ve been totally out of it, and you’re probably going to tell me you’ve been doing these for ages, and make me feel old.

Anyway, for my fellow old codgers, escape rooms are a big booming business right now. The idea is that someone designs an elaborate series of puzzles in a locked room — you have to figure out a hidden code with clues in the room to find a secret switch that opens a concealed door that leads to a room with more puzzles that then fit with clues to reveal more puzzles, for instance, and if you solve them all within a certain time limit you are allowed to escape, or discover the murderer, or save the world, or something. They seem to be hugely popular — a search for Minneapolis escape rooms reveals they’re dotted all over the map.

And now, I’ve gone from a state of total ignorance to having played 3 escape rooms at the Science Museum’s expense.

I’ve learned many things this week — if you want to teach people about science, it’s helpful to listen to theater people and game designers, and it’s good to get away from the model of telling people what the answer is to instead have them figure it out for themselves. Also, escape rooms are kind of fun.


  1. Jason Nishiyama says

    For that reason I always download the videos I intend to use in class or presentations…

  2. cartomancer says

    Even I knew about Escape Rooms, and I’m just about the last person on the planet to discover things. I don’t have a mobile phone and I was still using a fax machine to send things well into the 2010s. You are officially old and out of touch. Or, at least, you were. You have now remedied this defect. Welcome to the 21st century, Granddad!

  3. Chris Capoccia says

    the trick with youtube and presenting is to make sure you have already started to play the video and gotten past the ad before you start projecting. Or you could do Jason’s method and download the video using some 3rd part software or browser plugin

  4. bradp says

    I think you should create a video with 4 or 5 animals in development. As the video progresses have the viewers match them to the animal they will become.

  5. says

    I heard about a terrifying escape room. It’s a room full of books and there is a coffee machine, a bottle of port and some roasted nuts, and you have only one hour in which to escape.

  6. David Marjanović says

    No adblocker? I never see ads on YouTube…

    Even I knew about Escape Rooms, and I’m just about the last person on the planet to discover things.

    I have you beat.

  7. doubtthat says

    We lived in St. Paul until I was 9. That science museum is my childhood kingdom. I loved that place. I think I demanded to go there once a week. Took a lot of awesome kid-focused classes.

    It’s still framed my understanding of what a museum should be: less “This is how a booger gets made” exhibits and more austere, marble-floored rooms with just amazing fossils. That triceratops was the coolest damn thing. Also, a lot of fond memories of the Egyptian wing and that mummy and the T-Rex skull.

    Just a fantastic place for kids and adults, alike.

  8. davidc1 says

    Phwoar ,look at the size of that hammer ,or should i say look at the size of Thor’s hammer .

  9. says

    I couldn’t agree more, learning should be as practical and fun as possible. Problem is, it’s quite hard to make educational and pedagogic puzzles. Demonstrations aren’t bad either, even if it doesn’t include participation. I can still remember my old high school physics teacher, she loved those demonstrations. And her enthusiasm for them was quite contagious.

  10. tbtabby says

    Escape rooms! Now you’re talkin’ my language! I’ve never been to a real one (not sure I want to after reading this article), but I’ve been through the digital equivalent many times. Sturgeon’s Law is in full effect, but there are some really good sites out there:

    Neutral: A small but very high-quality collection. I actually thought it’d stopped updating, but a new one finally got released last month. Do make note of the stars that indicate difficulty. Elements is only for people with a lot of time to kill.
    Robamimi: Several games to choose from, available in English or Japanese, with well-done visuals, background music that can be turned off and hint buttons. Some of them even have plots.
    Detarou: Available in Japanese only, but the language barrier doesn’t make the games any more nonsensical than they already are. These games are crazy with a capital cray, but have a little patience and you’ll soon find that there’s a method to the madness and some very clever puzzles to be had. Not only that, each puzzle has a secret ending. Just remember one rule: NEVER TRUST THE PANDA.

  11. Dave Grain says

    Could have been worse, you could have opened up a page of your own blog only to have them see all the lovely ladies trying to sell “lose 40lbs in a week” diets.

  12. archangelospumoni says

    Dr Myers
    Please keep up the good work and it will be through work like yours that Drumpfh and the filthy Drumpfheteer crime family get beaten. Will take at least a generation but this is the way. . . tens of millions of us are on your side.
    Archangelo Spumoni

  13. magistramarla says

    Beat you to it, PZ!
    I learned about escape rooms in December. My daughter and her husband took us to one just before Christmas. We had so much fun! It was three PHDs and one retired Latin teacher (me). We escaped in less than the allotted hour.
    We found that we were a great team – I’m good at noticing details, my husband is the tech guy (computer science PHD), my daughter is very thorough (Neuroscience PHD), and my son-in-law (Political Science PHD) is excellent at organizing and leading.

  14. says

    Escape rooms are good fun. It’s a good cooperative game to play after some beer and pizza. Or before some beer and pizza.

    I’m happy about the new generation of cooperative games that are coming out. It simply wasn’t an option with 70s and 80s games but networking has really changed that.

    It’s funny that old farts sometimes growl about internet eroding social interaction but I think that is BS. You can play pick-ip games with strangers and sometimes you stick. I know lifelong friendships that came out of simple cooperative games like escape rooms and – not to get too overblown – it reminds us that our humanity is cooperative problem-solving not just bashing people on the head.

  15. cartomancer says

    I have noticed that Escape Rooms really do bring out people’s personalities if they’re well designed. I can still remember a “steal the Urn from the Chinese History Exhibit in the Museum” one. The staff gave us repeated instructions that nothing in the room was solved by applying brute force to it, both before we went in and through the radio system. We found a small bamboo puzzle box in one corner after one of these warnings. My brother strutted to the front and snatched it up, as he is wont to do with his overweening sense of his own importance, and then told us that, having lived in Japan for a couple of years and being familiar with all things oriental, he would solve this one while the rest of us applied our talents elsewhere. So we let him have his way, and spread out to attend to the other clues in the room. Within about twenty seconds we began to hear a strange rhythmic thumping sound which, when we looked round to find out what it was, turned out to be him banging the thing repeatedly against the wall because he had become frustrated that it wouldn’t open.

  16. says

    Funnily enough, only yesterday someone mentioned the possibility of an Escape Room as part of a forthcoming Work Night Out.

    I think I might be sold on the idea …..