Escape Room Game - A Constitutional Kidnapping (Part 1)

Escape Room Game - A Constitutional Kidnapping (Part 1)

And now for something completely different.

—John Cleese, Monty Python

The Game is Afoot

Students walk in and it’s clearly not a normal day in Government class. They see a mysterious locked box on a desk. Their teacher informs them that they’re in Virginia in the summer of 1788, and delegates are about to decide whether to ratify the newly proposed constitution. Shockingly, James Madison is nowhere to be found! The students find a letter.

My Dear Sir,

I write in great haste. Mr. Henry has gone mad and I fear for my safety! He wants VA to reject the constitution at all costs. I fear a most ruinous end for our nation if we vote no!

He knows that my arguments will carry the day, and I believe he means to prevent my attendance through some form of infamous treachery!

I have locked my arguments in this box for safekeeping. If something happens to me, see to it that they are still presented at the ratifying convention. Only a true Federalist will be able to access these notes.

Your humble and obedient servant,

J. Madison

Thus begins my new game in the style of “escape rooms.” I hadn’t considered trying to bring escape room games into the classroom until I read this piece by Scott Nicholson, a game designer and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University. I found the premise of his game engaging, and I voraciously consumed his other writings regarding escape rooms and BreakoutEDU (the company most known for bringing escape room concepts to the classroom). In a BreakoutEDU game, students are trying to break into a box rather than trying to break out of a room.

The more I explored the games offered by BreakoutEDU, the more I realized I’d rather design my own. They had some neat games on there, but I had trouble finding any to suit my desires. As I explained in my first post, I want to use games to teach content with, not just to review or to have fun. There may not always be a clear distinction there, but for this game I decided it meant including new content they hadn’t seen before.

Primary Challenge

I rely on primary sources in my classes. I’ve found it to be far more rewarding than relying on textbooks, so I knew right away that my game would use primary documents.

When my BreakoutEDU kit arrived, Constitution Day had just passed. Plus, we had just started a chapter on the ratification debates surrounding the Constitution. So the first parameters for my game were born from circumstance:

  • It must use unfamiliar primary documents

  • It must be suitable for Constitution Day

As I read more about escape room design, particularly Dr. Nicholson’s Ask Why paper, I decided to place additional constraints on my game.

  • It must not have a contrived premise for why students should get into the box

  • It must not simply be a series of random puzzles to solve

  • It must not stray from a uniform theme and setting

Constrained Design

These constraints were a fun challenge, but proved difficult to pull off. Early in the process I thought of the kidnapping hook that will make students want to get into the box, and the game started to build itself from there.

How do you make a series of puzzles be more than simply a series of puzzles? I’m not sure—but I think I was able to move in that direction with this game. The locks that come with the Breakout kit can do combinations of letters, numbers, shapes, arrows, and colors. This really lends itself to puzzle-making by default. Don’t get me wrong, the puzzles are one of the most fun things about escape rooms! But we’re Teaching With Games here, and I wanted this experience to involve more than just that. Puzzles are fun, but they can be even worse than games at teaching new content. In my next post I’ll go into more detail about what I was able to do in this area.

Once I set the game in 1788, I decided to keep my students immersed in that setting as much as possible. Accordingly, I eliminated a few tools from the Breakout kit. It comes with a USB drive you can put clues on, as well as invisible ink and a blacklight. Those items would be out of place in 1788, so I set them aside. Doing this was painful because I’m dying to make use of them!

And Away We Go

In the end, I set the following learning objectives for this Constitution Day game:

  • Engage students with new content about the Constitution

  • Students will demonstrate an ability to read, understand, and analyze unfamiliar primary sources

  • Students will be required to collaborate with each other and think critically to solve problems

As I set to the task of making my vision a reality, I learned how little I knew about designing puzzles and making these kinds of games. So what does it look like to make a Breakout game set in 1788 that uses primary sources to teach new content about the Constitution without relying on puzzles-for-the-sake-of-puzzles? Find out in my next post!

(Update: this game is available to playtest! Fill out the form here to gain access to it)

Escape Room Game - A Constitutional Kidnapping (Part 2)

Escape Room Game - A Constitutional Kidnapping (Part 2)

The Mercantilism Game - All About the Bullions (Part 3)

The Mercantilism Game - All About the Bullions (Part 3)