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Instructional Design & Escape Room Design

Nate Martin on Escape Room designs for training

Nate Martin, who has a long history of success in the tech industry, decided it was time for a change. That’s when he brought escape rooms to the United States. Perhaps you’ve gone to an escape room – a place where you and a group of others (co-workers, friends, a hot date, perhaps even strangers) get locked into a room and have 60 minutes to complete a series of challenges and puzzles in order to find your way out of the room.

If you’ve ever experienced an escape room, you can take a look around and observe what engagement looks like for 60 straight minutes. People are focused, working together, trying to solve problems, puzzles and challenges.

Recently I had an opportunity to sit down with Nate and talk about what he sees as the parallels between escape room design and instructional design. Here is our conversation:

Introduction 

Brian Washburn: Welcome, everyone, to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, I am the Co-founder of Endurance Learning, which is a little but mighty instructional design firm that creates all sorts of training programs, whether it is in-person or virtual or eLearning. If you need a helping hand, give us a call.

But that’s not why I’m here. I’m here because today I am joined by Nate Martin, who is the Co-founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, and this is going to be a really interesting conversation today, I think. We’re going to be talking about the parallels between instructional design and escape room design.

Before we get into any of that, though, I do need to let you know that we are brought to you today by Endurance Learning’s new L&D Professionals Academy, which is an eight-week cohort-based course for people looking to break into the world of learning and development. So we’ll dive into adult learning theory, instructional design basics, classroom training design and delivery, eLearning design and development, change management, project management – all while building a portfolio of work samples for your next interview. If you want more information, you can visit www.endurancelearning.com/academy or let us know. You can shoot me an email. Our first cohort will be beginning in October.

So, all of that is out of the way. I am here with Nate Martin, Co-founder and CEO of Puzzle Break, the person who brought escape rooms to the United States. How are you, Nate?

Nate Martin: I’m fantastic. Thanks for having me today.

Six-Word Bio

Brian Washburn: I’m excited to have you. And so, to show the world, or to tell the world, a little bit more about yourself, we’ve reserved six more words for your biography. So, how would you introduce yourself to the world in six words?

Nate Martin: So some years ago, I was doing an interview and they said, “Well, you’re kind of like the founding father of escape rooms.” And I said, “Well, yeah– yes. And I look forward to using that title that you have given me in every conversation that I can drop it into for the rest of my life. And so it’s kind of stuck. I’m happy to say I didn’t initially give it to myself, but I have been using it because it’s, you know, flattering, but it’s also not wrong.

Brian Washburn: Yeah, that might be the best elevator speech, elevator pitch, right? That I have ever heard. So, I imagine that at a cocktail party when somebody says, what do you do? And you say, “Oh, I’m the founding father of escape rooms.” That would be a pretty good conversation starter.

Nate Martin: Yeah. That’s a go-to for cocktail parties for sure.

Brian Washburn: I love it. But even before this, you seem to have had a thriving career in tech, and then you pivoted and brought the first escape room to the United States. What made you decide America needs escape rooms?

Bringing Escape Rooms to America

Nate Martin: So– and it’s an excellent segue, I spent a lion’s share of my early career in tech. I was at Microsoft for seven years, and I made video games/electronic arts after that. And in 2013, my then friend and future Co-founder and I learned that real-life escape rooms were happening kind of in pockets of the world, but not the United States, and I should pause. It used to be, I needed to kind of explain what escape rooms are, but like, increasingly, it’s kind of a common thing. But at that time, all we really knew was that it was a realization of a video game concept, what might be described as a– first were there are MUDs – multi-user dungeons – in the 70s, into some of the graphical points and click adventures through the 90s. Those were some of my favorite games growing up. With some of Dr. Lindsay Morse, my Co-founder’s favorite games growing up, we realized that doing that in real life was a very natural fit. It would be very fun. And I mentioned I was at Microsoft for seven years– we’re getting a little ahead of my skis as we kind of talk about, you know, leadership training and stuff.

I was "subjected" — that is the word I will use — to a lot of mandatory team building, professional development stuff, each more horrifying than the last. And they meant well, it wasn't meant to be torturous. It was all reasonably good content, but it was packaged in a way that kind of was awful.

I was “subjected” — that is the word I will use — to a lot of mandatory team building, professional development stuff, each more horrifying than the last. And they meant well, it wasn’t meant to be torturous. It was all reasonably good content, but it was packaged in a way that kind of was awful. And whenever we saw– okay, like these existed – real-life escape rooms exist in Japan – it was a simultaneous, “Oh, my God, that would do so well in Seattle where we’re kind of out of.” And then immediately it was, “Oh, my God, this is going to be the best team building activity, even if we didn’t initially focus on that exclusively. It’s become a massive part of what we do and the rest of history.

What is an Escape Room?

Brian Washburn: I love that story. And you– one of the things you said made me think, “Oh my gosh.” Escape rooms are pretty ubiquitous, I think for most people, but for anybody who’s listening who doesn’t know what an escape room is, and if I am defining it poorly, let me know. But basically it’s a group of people get together, they go into this room, they’re locked in, they have to get through a series of challenges or puzzles, and they have a time limit, usually like an hour to get through the challenges and puzzles that give them clues on how to get out of that locked room. Is that a good summary of what an escape room is?

Nate Martin: It’s very good. The only thing I’ll add is the “locked in the room part” and the “escaping the room part” — that’s still a huge part of a lot of what we do. But there’s much more now. Like, perhaps the objective isn’t to physically get out of the room — it’s to defuse a bomb or steal a painting or prevent a painting from being stolen. But the core activity of like, “Yes, you’re in a team, got to use your brains, overcome some obstacles.” That’s what makes escape rooms escape rooms, and also, I’m sure we’ll get into this, make them excellent team activities, both for– ranging from just recreational morale all the way through some intensive skill development.

Brian Washburn: Yeah. And so when I had a chance to go through an escape room experience, I was able just to look around and everybody’s attention is engaged. They are, for every second of the entire time that they’re going through the challenges in front of them, that’s what they’re doing. They’re just engaged. What are some of the things about an escape room experience that you think hold people’s attention?

Why are Escape Rooms so Engaging?

I'll tell you what I didn't have in my Microsoft trainings. There wasn't an endorphin within 50 miles of the conference room that I was in with our post-it notes and the whatever.

Nate Martin: So– and I’m making a note here because I wasn’t– you’ve you hit upon something I didn’t even think to discuss here today, but is really, really crucial to kind of the magic here, but I get ahead of myself. The long and short of it is endorphins. I’ll tell you what I didn’t have in my Microsoft trainings. There wasn’t an endorphin within 50 miles of the conference room that I was in with our post-it notes and the whatever. But escape rooms are– they’re just thrilling. You got discovery components of what is this place? What magic have the designers cooked into here? And then the joy of overcoming those challenges. And it’s really hard to overstate just this magnitude of that, as well as the nuance of what that actually can produce for the brains of the people involved.

One example, you have– your whole team is maybe focused on one thing, and you’re a little bit stressed, “What’s going on?” “We don’t know, the clock is ticking,” and then one person solves– like, they figure it out. We, in the industry, that’s generally known as a hero moment. They are the hero and the rush of being like, “Hey, follow me. I have figured it out.” And you’re either inserting a key or pressing this button sequence. You ride that high, you chase that dragon for years. It’s really, really, really compelling.

The best parallel that I have, and this is coming from not a golfer, but golf. Golf is intrinsically frustrating and often not very fun and not very easy to understand, but every single lifelong golfer I’ve ever talk to about this concept, they’re like, “Just wait until you get that first good shot. And that– endorphins in your brain just rewires how things work and you’ll be a slave to that course for the rest of your life.” Kind of the same general concept in escape rooms, although I think the escape rooms a lot more fun than golf.

Learning About People Through Participating in Escape Rooms

I don't think that it was just the escape room experience that she showed up more confident the next day, but she grew and grew in the company beyond anything that I would have imagined.

Brian Washburn: I gotta say when I– so I did an escape room as a team building experience once, and there was somebody on our team, a woman who– I had known her for years as a co-worker, I never worked really directly with her. She always seemed very quiet, shy, reserved, and in the escape room she was the one who was having, I think, the most hero moments. I mean, it was fascinating. And then afterwards, we had a chance to debrief it and we’re like, “Wow, Sonia. I mean, it was so– we wouldn’t have accomplished what we accomplished without your contributions.” And I don’t think that it was just the escape room experience that she showed up more confident the next day, but she grew and grew in the company beyond anything that I would have imagined.

Nate Martin: Yeah.

Brian Washburn: And it was– you can tell a lot about somebody going through a lot of escape rooms.

When you make it fun and you get buy-in from the most difficult people, that is a unspeakably important hurdle that like we as escape room designers and deliverers really get for free.

Nate Martin: It does a lot of work, for sure. Everything– we see that every single day. And one note that I was going to add to what you kind of set up – the question – is buy-in. So again, going back to my own personal experience at Microsoft, and you can kind of get a sense for how I felt about a lot of these trainings, not all of them, but a lot of them. No matter how good a leadership training is or a morale event or anything, you need the people there to want to be there and to get something from the experience. And if they don’t want to be there and don’t have that desire, not only will they get nothing from it, but like, they’ll tear everybody else down. They’ll ruin it like a bad apple in the metaphor. So when you make it fun and you get buy-in from the most difficult people, which spoiler, was me in a lot of these trainings, that is a unspeakably important hurdle that like we as escape room designers and deliverers really get for free.

Brian Washburn: And so, I mean, we’ve talked about escape rooms as a recreational kind of fun type of entertainment sort of thing that you might do with your team as a team builder and activity or with friends for kind of getting together on a Thursday night or whatever. But you also offer like specific team building experiences and leadership development experiences. What parallels do you see in the design of an escape room experience and the design of a good learning experience? And you’ve shared some of this, but I’m just kind of curious now if we can start to get into some of the mechanics here.

Similarities Between Good Escape Rooms and Good Instructional Design

Nate Martin: Sure. So it’s a vibe. And I know like, a vibe and mechanics are two very– like, they’re often oceans apart. We have we developed this kind of framework called the Puzzle Break Keystones. And I won’t turn this into a pitch, but there’s a couple specific items here that are directly germane to your question. So, some things that we focus on, not just in the design of the activity, but we actually discuss how this landed in little check-ins for some of our offerings. Vulnerability is something that we don’t often focus on, we avoid like the plague, but it’s really important to just being successful in life to recognize when you don’t know something and saying out loud, “Hey, I don’t know this and that’s fine, but like, I don’t know this, but here’s how I will learn it.”

And we cook into our experiences forced moments like that, that really, you know, put people on the back foot in a constructive way. Which is a really hard but important thing for any kind of leadership training to make sure that you don’t– you know, the worst kind of leaders are the one that don’t recognize any flaws in themselves or their knowledge and kind of awakening people to that is a hard thing that we cook into. When you hit a challenge and it’s hard and you have to overcome it, you have to be vulnerable.

A successful leader-- anyone in the workplace to just have suggestions and strategies and maybe it'll go nowhere, but let's talk about it and evaluate the pros and cons. And even if that isn't the right strategy or answer to an escape room, it sometimes leads to the right strategy or answers.

Amendability. There’s no bad ideas. “Hey, this is a dumb idea. But how about this?” And you know what? It might be a dumb idea, but like we got– let’s say them out loud. And a successful leader– anyone in the workplace to just have suggestions and strategies and maybe it’ll go nowhere, but let’s talk about it and evaluate the pros and cons. And even if that isn’t the right strategy or answer to an escape room, it sometimes leads to the right strategy or answers.

Brian Washburn: That happens all the time.

Nate Martin: Yeah, yeah.

Brian Washburn: People– I’ll toss out a silly idea, and then somebody will be like, “I don’t like that. And we might be able to take a part of that and look at it a little differently and come up with something better.”

Nate Martin: Yeah, and I’m like, “Oh god, how dumb were we? Like, this is so good.

Brian Washburn: Yep.

Nate Martin: It’s– and you see, this is a moment in every single escape room experience that any team ever has, and a lot of workplace successes are foundationally built on that. And again, we’re not going to turn this into a four-hour conversation with my apologies to the listeners for going this deep into it. Hopefully this is okay. And the last bit, which is really kind of some of our secret sauce, both at Puzzle Break, but a lot of escape rooms really lean into this, is surrendering authority. When you’re in an escape room, there’s not the boss, Sonya notwithstanding, we’ll talk about her in a moment.

Brian Washburn: Right.

It is really, really, really successful to put an intern right next to the CEO on the same playing field. And you'd see this in a lot of leadership trainings that are really successful. 

Nate Martin: Like, it’s not this, “Oh, hey, CEO, you’re– tell us what to do.” We’re all– you know, it’s a democracy. We’re all in this together. We got to figure out how we’re going to overcome this. Maybe I’m good at math puzzles and you’re good at language puzzles and they’re good at finding stuff. And it is really, really, really successful to put an intern right next to the CEO on the same playing field. And you’d see this in a lot of leadership trainings that are really successful. 

One, it builds the relationship, and two, it really kind of wakes everybody else up to what it’s like to work up or work down or manage up or manage down. And you don’t need this in every successful leadership training, but it’s a very nice to have, and it’s an automatic component of an escape room experience, so we lean into that to often great success. And then you come out of it, and maybe the CEO didn’t even know what Sonya’s name was before that experience, but like, not only do they know each other now, but they have like, honestly, a working relationship, which is invaluably important for everyone involved to kind of foster those sorts of things.

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

Nate Martin: Now, this is not a comprehensive list and there’s not the Puzzle Break escape room team building way is only just one of many awesome ways to kind of leverage these themes. Again, drawing from my own personal experience and the designers on my team to kind of lean into what works for us and in our clientele.

Brian Washburn: Yeah, you know, and listening to you share a little bit about the secret sauce, it makes me think that escape room design is an entire discipline that really takes time and dedication to master. I mean, you said that you were doing video games for years before doing this. So even though it feels so seamless when you’re actually going through that experience, if somebody was to ask me to design an escape room for them tomorrow, I’d love the idea. I love getting creative and seeing what we can do, and I also think that any activity that I would come up with would be like a third rate knockoff. And it would probably have a high likelihood that it would just flop. My hunch is that it isn’t something that you wake up and decide, “Oh, I’m going to do this today.” It probably takes some practice, probably takes some, you know, trial and error and refinement of the activities and things that fail and then figuring out why did it fail? How is this going to work better before we actually put people in front of this?

So, for people who are listening and thinking, “Huh. You know what? I think adding some escape room design elements into my training session or my eLearning module would make it much more engaging, it would make it much more effective.” What would be one or maybe two or three pieces of advice, concrete things, that somebody could do to start mastering just some of the principles of escape room design?

How Can I Add Escape Room Design Elements Into My Next Training Session?

Nate Martin: So I’ve got– great question. I’ve got four– I’ve got three plus zero. Step zero is this person is right. I can’t think of a single thing that wouldn’t be improved with escape room elements.

Brian Washburn: CHUCKLING

Nate Martin: And I am the most biased human in the world. I have a singular passion for this. But truly, as objectively as I could possibly get, adding some fun gamification to anything that isn’t already pretty fun makes it better. This is my own personal view. 

Make it Fun

Nate Martin: So, step one is make it fun. That’s the whole ethos behind successful, not just escape room, but game creation. And that should be the North Star for design. Figure out the things I talked about – the vulnerability, the surrendering authority. Come to that later. Make a fun thing first. And then, go from there.

Experience What Works and What Doesn’t Work

Nate Martin: The second thing is have some experience, play some escape rooms, figure out what your fun is. You know, you mentioned the seamless thing and when you play these things and how effortlessly good a lot of them seem.

Brian Washburn: Mhm.

Nate Martin: Some of them are not. And, you know, it’s a hard thing, as you say. And so it’s valuable to go play some really good escape rooms and think about why was that good? What puzzles worked? Why did they work on my brain? Play some that are not so good. Like, what worked? But the things that didn’t work, why didn’t they work? And how can I avoid these and learn from this?

Test It Out

Nate Martin: And then last but not least, and you mentioned this kind of in passing, but I’ll circle back because it’s so crucially important, is you gotta test it. Like small side note, this is another four-hour conversation is what we did with the pandemic whenever everything got shut down. Short version, we made a pivot to virtual, and we converted a lot of our in-person escape room content into a virtual form factor. And at that point, we had been doing escape rooms for 7+ years, effortlessly, and we were so overconfident, like, “Oh, we’ll just put it online, Brian. It’ll be fine.”

Brian Washburn: Of course.

Nate Martin: And it was not. I mean, we– before we got it in front of customers, we did some tests and there were some big problems, some big problems and we’re the pros. And so the only reason that we were able to fix them is because we put it in front of that test group and made notes and then changed it and then put it in front of that test group and made notes and changed it. And so testing and iterating, it’s going to be the backbone to any level of success. And there’s some incredible escape rooms out there by folks that have never done one before, but did these steps, and just made it fun in their way, tested it, and came out the gates with something stunning that I would be deeply proud to have been involved with. And there’s been some real veterans, myself included, that have gotten some duds by like maybe not doing these steps as good. So being thoughtful and iterating is a big component.

Brian Washburn: You know, we could go on for hours and hours. I’m so fascinated by this. And I’m excited to have our local chapter be able to go through this coming up as well. But before we leave here, I really appreciate your time. And before we leave, I’m just wondering if you have any shameless plugs for it.

Nate Martin: I’ll just say go to www.PuzzleBreak.us. If you’re in the Seattle area, come check us out. If you’re not, check out our virtual escape room and team building offerings. And I hope to hear from you guys.

Brian Washburn: Well, Nate Martin, thank you so much for giving us some time today to talk a little bit about the parallels between escape room design and instructional design. Thank you everyone else for listening to this episode of Train Like You Listen. If you know of somebody who might find today’s topic of the parallels between escape room design and instructional design to be useful, go ahead and pass along a link. And until next time, everyone, happy training.

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