Escapist Research

Scholars at the University of Mannheim create an escape room that’s a live research laboratory—and also a lot of fun.
Escapist Research

A YOUNG SCIENTIST from the University of Mannheim finishes an academic paper, submits it to a journal, and sets off for a vacation in the Amazon. During her travels, she discovers that an evil corporation is trying to steal the land rights of the native population. She returns to Germany to consult with colleagues before she takes the news to the media, but she mysteriously vanishes before she can go public. In her office, she leaves behind a few artifacts from the Amazon and some personal effects. Do any of these provide clues to her disappearance?

That’s the setup for “The Lost Scientist,” an escape room designed by four researchers at the University of Mannheim Business School in Germany as a way for them to study team dynamics. The interdisciplinary research group includes Laura Marie Edinger-Schons, chair of corporate social responsibility, who also focuses on experimental behavior research; Janick Edinger and Christian Becker, both chairs of information systems; and Hartmut Höhle, chair of enterprise systems. Together they have created an escape room that not only will yield a wealth of data for their respective disciplines, but also be an enjoyable experience for all the participants.

Edinger-Schons and Edinger first got the idea after a student shared data about escape rooms in China, where corporate clients would send employees to promote team-building. The data included not only performance indicators, such as how long it typically took for teams to solve the riddles, but also some determinants of performance.

“For instance, we found that as soon as the boss of the team was in the room, the performance went down,” says Edinger-Schons. “We wondered if we would find similar behaviors among European teams if we did replication studies here in Mannheim, where escape rooms are very popular. Because we wanted to be able to measure a lot of different things, we decided to create our own escape room at the university.”

During December of 2018, the researchers began putting together their experiment. They received permission to use a room in the Mannheim Palace, a historic baroque building where the university holds some classes and events. There, they created a game that participants can play while researchers track their interactions. By fall of 2019, they had run about 20 pre-tests and were getting ready to begin games with real teams.

GATHERING THE DATA

A defining feature of “The Lost Scientist” is the embedded technology that allows researchers to capture the kind of data that’s not usually available when they study team performance. The room and the players are fitted with a range of technology, including cameras, microphones, and a positioning system that allows the researchers to track where people are standing.

“Since everyone wears a microphone, we can analyze who’s talking to whom, who is talking the most or the loudest, and who interrupts while others are talking,” says Edinger. The data is analyzed through automated systems to remove any bias that could arise from manual analysis—and to allow the researchers to scale up as they run dozens of experiments.

Technology captures data not usually available when researchers study team performance.

While participants are aware that they’re being recorded, the researchers have made the tech as unobtrusive as possible so that at some point the players forget they’re being monitored. To further the illusion that players are not under constant scrutiny, participants are asked to use walkie-talkies any time they want to communicate with the researchers. “When people are aware they’re being recorded, it changes their behavior,” Edinger explains. “They think twice about whether they should actually say something.”

In addition to gathering data digitally during the game, researchers also survey participants before and after they play. The “before” surveys ask players a range of questions. How well do they know the other team members? How much do they trust their teammates? Are they perfectionists? Do they have performance anxiety? Are they afraid of looking stupid in the room?

For many people, the answer to the last question is a decided yes, says Edinger. “They’ll ask questions like, ‘What is the worst result?’ and ‘Will you get us out after a couple of hours?’”

Participants are also asked about the expectations they have for themselves and for their teams. “We have seen from previous data that when people have a high expectation of their own performance, they have a lower perception of the possible performance of their team members,” says Edinger-Schons. “People are convinced they are super smart, but they think their team members aren’t.”

Additional pre-game survey questions are designed to uncover personality types. “Using personality scales from psychology, we can determine if participants display traits of narcissism, perfectionism, proactivity, and so on,” says Edinger-Schons. “Information about their personality types can help explain their behavior in the room.”

Post-game questions revolve around how participants perceived the experience and their interactions with others. Says Edinger-Schons, “All this data helps to explain the variations in outcomes.”

Escape Room

Janick Edinger (in striped shirt), Laura Edinger-Schons, and student assistant Markus Mosig observe
while a team attempts to solve the clues in the escape room. (Photo by Luisa Gebhard)

 

CREATING THE CLUES

Outcomes also vary because each team tends to be better at some activities than others, and the room is set up with three different types of tasks: searching for clues, solving riddles, and making deductions from available information. In some teams, gender stereotypes play out—as when, for instance, women step back to allow men to handle technology problems; in other teams, that type of behavior is not a factor.

It was a delicate balance to create a series of tasks that would make the escape room both entertaining for participants and useful for researchers. “It took us a long time to design the game in such a way that it wouldn’t be too easy and wouldn’t be too hard,” says Edinger-Schons. “Now we have a setup of riddles that most teams manage to solve within an hour—although most teams also have to ask for help at some point.”

When participants get stuck, the researchers offer standardized hints at standardized times, so that all team performances can be compared at the end. “If team members are struggling with a riddle but don’t ask for help, we will intervene at a specific point and give them the first hint,” says Edinger. “If they still can’t solve it, we give them a second hint. With the third hint, we actually solve the riddle for them.”

Teams get a certain number of points for each riddle they solve on their own, fewer points if they ask for help, and zero points if the researchers have to supply the solution. “At the end, we can calculate the team performance,” says Edinger- Schons. “We not only look at if they solved the room and how long it took, but also at how many points they earned.”

ASSEMBLING THE TEAMS

The first 20 teams were made up of students and other volunteers who helped the researchers refine the setup and uncover any potential problems. Once pre-testing concluded, the researchers used social media and the student newspaper to announce that they were looking for more teams. Applications began pouring in—from students, corporate employees, and residents of the city of Mannheim. Ultimately, they ran 82 additional sessions with groups of five.

“This is the one experiment where we don’t have any issues recruiting people,” jokes Edinger. “Usually we have to bribe them with chocolate or something.”

One lure is simply that the game is enjoyable. “Escape rooms are very central in Mannheim,” he says. Asked to rate the “fun” level of the game on a scale from 1 to 7, most players have given it a 6 or 7. “They say it’s comparable to professional escape rooms.”

Another draw is that the game is free. “Usually, it costs between 80 and 100 euros for a group to go through an escape room,” says Edinger-Schons. “Here, they pay with their data and their time. But they also know they are helping to support our research, and they’re interested to see what we find out.”

In fact, Edinger-Schons and Edinger speculate that some local residents might be signing up out of curiosity about what happens on the other side of the university walls. “Sometimes people are intimidated to come to the university if they’re not academics, so this is a way to help them lose their fear of the psychological difference,” says Edinger-Schons.

“People who participate in the escape room often ask what our research is about,” adds Edinger. “I always talk about the example from China, where teams do not perform as well when their manager is in the room. I explain that we have the opportunity to manipulate the behavior of the teams through some of our suggestions. Because they have just participated in the experiment, they can understand some of our goals.”

MANAGING THE RESULTS

One goal the researchers share is the desire to contribute new information to the existing literature on team performance. The researchers—including co-author Likoebe Maruping of the Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University in Atlanta—are currently analyzing the data to identify patterns. A topic Edinger-Schons hopes to explore is leadership.

When the first round of official games began in September of 2019, the researchers simply allowed teams to play the room in order to create a performance baseline. However, in the second round, they began nudging the teams in specific directions.

For instance, in the pre-tests, leaders would often emerge naturally in each game. In later rounds, researchers manipulated the way leaders were determined—using methods such as drawing lots or administering IQ tests beforehand and choosing the smartest person as the leader. “This is a topic that is extremely relevant to organizations today,” says Edinger-Schons. “Companies don’t have steep hierarchies anymore, and there is a lot of shared leadership on teams. There has already been research on how leaders emerge, but there hasn’t been much on how we legitimate our leaders. That’s a really interesting area.”

In a virtual escape room, games can include things like fire and magic.

The game also will allow the researchers researchers to explore ways of bringing together unstructured data from the video and audio feeds with the structured data gathered in the survey questionnaires. “Researchers have decades of experience in dealing with structured data, but it’s new for them to be analyzing large gigabytes of unstructured data,” Edinger says. “There is no standardized way for analyzing video or audio or location data, but analyzing such data is one of the big trends we see in business and informatics.”

The researchers hope to bring some of the escape room results into their classrooms. Informatics students can learn how technology shaped the game, and business students can learn about conducting quantitative analysis.

A student team is now working on designing a virtual escape room, which will offer another intriguing possibility for research. “Because the game is virtual, the designers can break the boundaries of the real world and introduce things you could never have in a real escape room, like fire or magic,” says Edinger. Not only do these additions make the game more interesting, the digital nature of the game allows the researchers to capture some of the same data without installing cameras and microphones. “If the same teams play in the real-world escape room and the virtual escape room, we can compare the performances and see whether the same patterns occur in both,” he says.

“There’s a lot of discussion now about how well virtual teams perform under what conditions, so this would allow us to compare the same teams online and offline,” adds Edinger-Schons.

In the future, they envision the escape room being used for team-building exercises for corporate partners, which could be a money-making opportunity for the business school. “Or company teams could play the escape room and then get feedback on what happened in the room,” says Edinger-Schons. “They could get an analysis of our survey data.”

SHARING THE KNOWLEDGE

Edinger-Schons and Edinger believe other schools could create their own escape rooms to conduct research in a variety of disciplines. Their main piece of advice: Do a lot of pre-tests.

“You cannot imagine what can go wrong,” says Edinger. “I’m a programmer and I have been trained to design systems that are idiot-proof, but still participants have found ways to break the system.” One player threw and damaged an object that is a central part of the game. One team accidentally stumbled on the final clue, which unlocked the last door, which meant the group escaped the room in three minutes.

It’s also critical to start collecting data under real-world conditions as soon as possible, says Edinger, to make sure all the equipment is operating properly. “If one microphone isn’t working or one camera breaks in the middle of a session, you have to throw away all the work from that game,” says Edinger.

Even so, they have found the experience to be enjoyable and rewarding. “We have watched about 100 sessions, and every time it’s been fun,” says Edinger-Schons.

As for that young Mannheim scientist who disappeared? The final clue includes a shocking revelation—but only those who play the game will ever know the truth.

This article originally appeared in BizEd's May/June 2020 issue. Please send questions, comments, or letters to the editor to bized.editors@aacsb.edu.

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