Posted Tuesday April 23, 2019

Escape Challenge

Laurier’s Escape Room World Championships design team to share behind-the-scenes stories at public talk

Designing challenges for an international competition sponsored by a globally recognized brand is business as usual for students in Wilfrid Laurier University’s Game Design and Development program. For the second time, undergraduate students at Laurier’s Brantford campus have collaborated with faculty member Scott Nicholson to devise the games for Red Bull’s Escape Room World Championships.

On Wednesday, April 24 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Nicholson and his team will offer a behind-the-scenes look at the process involved in creating the challenges that make up Red Bull’s annual Mind Gamers competition, a tour de force intended to baffle the brightest puzzle-solving minds from around the world. Joining him will be Shannon McDowell, the Laurier’s Red Bull Escape Room Research Associate, and some of the students who worked on the project. The talk takes place in the BGNlab (Brantford Games Network Lab) located in Grand River Hall, 171 Colborne St. in Brantford.

Nicholson and his students have worked with Red Bull to design the escape room for its World Championship competition since its inception three years ago. Teams complete a series of online challenges to qualify. The finalists – hailing from over 20 different countries – have squared off in Budapest, Hungary in 2017 and most recently in London, U.K. For undergraduate students to have the opportunity to work on a global initiative of this scale is exceptional, and it’s a relationship that continues to create new real-world game design opportunities for students.

“This year we’ve grown the development team from three students to 10, which has enabled us to create a larger pool of ideas and challenges from which the Red Bull Mind Gamers organization could select,” said Nicholson. “The addition of Shannon McDowell to the team has been invaluable in helping us identify issues that could potentially make the game unfair for some of the teams coming together from 23 different countries. Red Bull also brought on one of last year’s contestants, Wei-Hwa Huang, as a puzzle consultant, and another former contestant, Ken Ferguson, as a gameplay consultant. Both of these new roles have helped us create a better escape room experience.”

Each year the escape room design team is assigned a narrative through which to develop the game. This year’s challenges were based on a timely and provocative question: Does Artificial Intelligence (AI) have rights?

"We built the narrative around this ethical question,” said Nicholson. “In this year's game, Omni's Escape, the players are being tasked to rescue Omni, an AI agent who would like to quit her job. Given that we are surrounded by AI agents like Siri and Alexa, we wanted to encourage players and viewers to think - what if these AI agents wanted to quit? What if Alexa wanted a vacation? What if Siri was asking to retire?’”

The design process for the latest Escape Room World Championships commenced over the spring and summer of 2018, with a core group of students and led by Emily Flynn-Jones, a post-doctoral research fellow at

Laurier. Students employed on the project include fourth-year students Robert Durant, Stephan Reilly and Chris Tenuta; third-year students Jelena Vulic, Son Le and Austin Lee;
and second-year students Eden Snelgrove Ribovski, Gregory Edgar, Kaelan Dunbar and Edward Copping.

“We are excited that this year’s tournament corresponds with our first graduating class from the Game Design and Development program,” said Nicholson of the program, which launched in 2015 and has since become a flagship for Laurier’s Brantford campus. “With this kind of experience our students will graduate ready to apply their knowledge to new tasks in an array of fields.”

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