Australia’s first escape room-style adventure game at the South Australian Museum

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This article first appeared in Australian Museums and Galleries Association Magazine Summer 2009.

Adrenalin-filled. Intense. Challenging. A bonding experience. Not words you’d normally expect to hear about a museum visit, but that’s exactly how participants have described The Shadow Initiation, the new escape room-style adventure game at the South Australian Museum.

Escape room experiences generally involve participants being locked in a room filled with puzzles they must solve within a certain amount of time to successfully escape. They give participants an adrenalin rush and an intense experience as they work in teams to solve challenges with creativity, strategy and critical thinking. It’s the type of experience that bonds people together.

Escape rooms have been growing in popularity, particularly with millennials (20–35-year-olds), whom museums traditionally find difficult to attract. The South Australian Museum wanted to explore new ways to engage this audience, to help people reconnect with the Museum of their childhood and become more frequent visitors. This led the Museum to develop The Shadow Initiation in partnership with Adventure Mode, an Adelaide-founded company that specialises in using adventure, gamification and interactivity to develop experiences that enhance existing attractions, places and spaces.

Brian Oldman, Director of the South Australian Museum, reports that ‘The Museum holds collections of over 600 million years of life on earth, and it’s impossible to share every unique story with the public. However, this game unlocks untold secrets from galleries our visitors may have walked 100 times, and to collection items they never knew existed.’

Emma Moad, Adventure Mode Director, has explained the design concept that was used: ‘We thought there was an opportunity to create an experience similar to that of an escape room at the Museum, but on a bigger scale. With such unique and interesting objects on display, it seemed a special opportunity to design puzzles and games that incorporate and highlight what the Museum has to offer.’

Typical escape rooms can be quite physical, as players search for clues through touch and movement, trying to open and unlock objects, in some cases ripping things off walls — all behaviours that are generally discouraged within museums. The challenge was to create the same level of excitement without people actually touching things. Adventure Mode overcame this by adding alternative tactile elements such as push buttons that activated lighting-based clues, and passcodes that opened hidden doors, as well as engaging touch via the tablet itself, as the main facilitator of the experience.

In creating the app, Adventure Mode worked with the Museum’s scientists and collection managers to develop the game, running information sessions with the team and asking them to propose ideas. A great deal of time was spent on the research phase, working with the science team to understand each part of the Museum — which collections or objects were popular; what may often be overlooked by visitors; behind-the- scene stories that can’t easily be interpreted on a small exhibition card. The aim was to capture what could be used as material that was relevant, interesting, and would challenge people’s thinking.

Every member of the science team was committed to getting people to enjoy and appreciate their collections. They were really engaged in the process, and excited to consider some novel ways of reaching new audiences. However, there were also strong concerns in the project design not to create puzzles that would put any of the collections at risk.

From an infrastructure perspective, the final result didn’t involve building anything new or elaborate. The aim was just to shine a light on many objects and experiences the Museum already has available, but to reveal these in new ways. Adventure Mode worked with external developers to create the game on their platform, and while the Museum handles eventual bookings and tablet rental, the game is hosted and maintained offsite. This leaves the Museum to focus on what it does best — telling the stories of life on earth.

Emma Moad again reported on the dynamics employed: ‘Through The Shadow Initiation, players move from being just a passive consumer of information to becoming the catalyst shaping their own experiences. They’re in control. They’re having to engage and move around, and they’re creating the excitement, the memories they will have afterwards. This is bound to guarantee a visit to the museum that they won’t forget.’

What we’re looking to do is to create increasingly emotive experiences that add an extra level, an extra layer to people’s visits, so that they walk away with a really clear memory of being at the Museum that day.

The first of its kind in Australia, the new game now guides teams of up to four through the Museum via a tablet, where puzzles are presented for visitors to solve using clues within the exhibitions on view. With more than 40 challenges to choose from and one hour on the clock, players need to have their team cover the museum with a lot of attention to complete as many challenges as possible and accrue points
in order to gain entry to the Museum’s ‘centuries-old’ secret society: The Secret Order of Quill and Compass. It is actually impossible to complete all 40 challenges within the hour; this encourages players to return and be more strategic about which challenges they undertake, to see if they can improve their performance.

In the six months since the app’s launch, 1,500 people have played the new SAM game, and 35% of players have been in the target 19–35 age bracket. The feedback to the Museum has been universally positive, and useful to further planning in public engagement. Ninety per cent of players have rated the game (on a 5-point scale) as good (4), or excellent (5). Individual feedback has also reinforced the project’s success. Each month public participation is increasing, and this is largely driven by word-of-mouth.

As more and more people have played the SAM game, the Museum is continuing to see an increase in people reporting that they heard about it from friends or saw a post online. The positive experiences people have then definitely stimulate more bookings. It is crucial that people have an enjoyable time through a rewarding, self-motivating experience, since word-of-mouth afterward is important in the building of social interconnections.

From the Museum’s perspective, visitors get
to experience the Museum and collections in a completely different way, creating new memories based on experiences that include teamwork or family building. Again, Brian Oldman has explained the museum’s aims in terms of heightening engagement and creating rich memories: ‘What we’re looking to do is to create increasingly emotive experiences that add an extra level, an extra layer to people’s visits, so that they walk away with a really clear memory of being at the Museum that day.’

The Shadow Initiation is one of a range of programs the South Australian Museum has put in place over the last few years that have seen visitation rates rise to more than a million visitors per year. With so many stories to tell through the collection resources, and increasingly sophisticated ways of sharing them and enhancing visitor experience, the aim of turning one-time visitors into returning social participants in the museum’s ongoing programs is steadily advancing.