The Imprisoned Alchemist: Escape Rooms and Game Based Learning

Back in the summer, Javier García Oliva, Professor of Law (University of Manchester) and Helen Hall, Associate Professor (Nottingham Trent University) contacted us about their ongoing work using the ‘escape room’ format as a tool for learning. We were naturally intrigued, and in the first instance, we offered the Museum as a venue for their forthcoming online workshop: The Imprisoned Alchemist on the possibilities for using Escape Room games for education and communication. This guest post from Javier and Helen introduces their work and what drew them to the Museum as a backdrop for their work. Needless to say, we are looking to explore how this popular format may be incorporated into our future programmes, so watch this space!

Where would you lock up a dodgy Tudor alchemist in contemporary Manchester? As we pondered this question from Javier’s office on Oxford Road, the Neo-Gothic splendour of the museum buildings struck us as an obvious possibility. We were planning a workshop on Escape Rooms as vehicle for teaching, research and public engagement, using our work on John Dee and alchemy as a case study. With expert input from Aaron Giles of The Great Escape Game, we were determined to deliver a session demonstrating how an escape room experience could not only be a means of communicating knowledge about the legal and political questions surrounding alchemy in the Early Modern period, but also enable participants to empathise with people from the past, and draw parallels with contemporary society.

Gargoyle with open mouth

Escape rooms require players to solve a series of puzzles in order to accomplish a goal, typically getting out of the locked room, but beyond this, they offer an immersive experience, an invitation to suspend disbelief and enter into an alternative reality. This is why, in addition to the architecture, Manchester Museum was the perfect backdrop for an event exploring the potential of escape rooms as a medium for learning. Museums are, by their very nature, an opportunity to step into a different kind of space, as they invite us both physically and mentally into an environment apart from the everyday, where we expect to encounter both objects and ideas which intrigue, move and enlighten us.

For this reason, it was the perfect backdrop for our discussion, as we worked through possibilities for escape rooms to bring to life a world or a set of concepts, and enable participants to direct the nature and flow of their experience. We talked about how it was possible to set up a rewarding escape room on a comparatively low budget, with simple techniques for generating atmosphere, as well as capturing and sustaining interest. It was very inspiring to witness the excitement and creativity which this sparked from colleagues, both internal and external, who came along to the workshop. Needless to say, we also tackled some of the practical obstacles and pitfalls in using escape rooms with students or the general public, and had a lively discussion throughout.

Summary slide about escape rooms

A recording of the workshop is now available to watch via the Religion, law and the constitution – Balancing Beliefs site: http://www.projects.law.manchester.ac.uk/religion-law-and-the-constitution/escape-rooms-teaching-and-public-engagement/. For further information, please email either Javier javier.oliva@manchester.ac.uk or Helen helen helen.hall@ntu.ac.uk

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