Plot is the structure of your story. Structure helps maximize impact and delivery, and offers a clear overall arc (e.g. beginning, middle, end). Keep in mind, a clear overall arc doesn’t mean every move is expected or predictable; if everything is expected then your audience isn’t necessarily learning anything new. So, while plot is important as an organizing structure, it’s still creative and flexible. Plot keeps us engaged.

Bounding Story:
A Case of Educational Escape Rooms

Educational escape rooms are learning experiences that bring people together in collaboration as they work to determine the best strategies to complete various puzzle-based challenges. Why reference them in the Innovation Studio this year? Well, escape rooms often feature an anchoring theme or story. Interestingly, they also tend to either be timed experiences or semi-short ones. The idea in mind for all of the escape room designers we have talked to so far is that their goal is not only to compel people to start the challenge, but also to entice and encourage them to continue playing and ideally even complete it. Recognizing that most do not have hours on end to devote to escape room play, one of the challenges in their design, then, is determining how to tell a compelling story in a very short period of time. Below, Maddie shares a bit about her experiences in bounding educational escape rooms (using fundamental concepts of plot) as she designed educational escape rooms for the Online Learning Consortium conferences.  

Tales of escape room design

By Maddie Shellgren

I had the tremendously fun privilege of being the lead designer of the first three OLC educational escape rooms. As alluded to, above, though, I was faced with the challenge of designing for a short length of time: 30 minutes. As such, I had to figure out how to tell a good story…one that conference participants would want to engage in…but a short one. One of the ways I approached this was to consider the basic idea of story arc (e.g. beginning, middle, and end). I ultimately decided that the educational escape room experience itself, would constitute the middle of the story so that I could use the opportunity during the experience on-boarding activities to story the context and activity they were about to engage in. Let me show you what I mean by that by sharing one of the stories participants were presented with prior to starting the escape room. Let’s look at the 2019 OLC Accelerate Escape Room Mission story below.

Participant sticker for the 2019 OLC Accelerate Escape Room

The 2019 OLC Accelerate Escape Room Mission Story

[In voice of an Artificial Intelligence agent]

Star date one-one-dash-one-nine-dash-two-two-six-nine

Welcome back from your deep sleep Accelerate25 space crew. You’ve just woken up from cryo sleep. I know it is common to be confused after a deep sleep. So I’ve prepared a recording to remind you of your mission. Hold while I pull up the transmission.


[Voice of Captain Hinkley, of Mission Command]

Good to see you crew! I hope the Accelerate25 is holding up well for you…we gave you the best ship in the fleet, but we know space travel is not always predictable. You’re on the way to the Omicron Laipra Crenutun system (or OLC for short) to build the future of our society. In case you’re wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into, remember you all signed up to be part of the first team to settle in this new system.

You’re already 250 years into your journey. I’m sad to report, but by the time you get this, humanity will have failed the Earth and it is no longer able to sustain life into the future. Your mission is to find a planet in the OLC system to settle as soon as possible because everyone else is already on their way. You and a life on Planet X are our only hope for survival.

According to our calculations, you are 30 minutes away from the planet. Normally this would be plenty of time to work through the essential landing procedures, which are tricky in and of themselves. However, to add to the existing challenge of space travel, we’ve just gotten notification that another competing group is paralleling your trajectory and has the aim to not only be the first to settle the planet, but claim all the resources for themselves in the process. 

The first thing you’ll need to do is meet up with the Fife Schuster, a space supply station that was sent ahead of you. It is crucial that you successfully dock with the Fife Schuster because the station carries all of the supplies you’ll need to get things started. 

Following this transmission, there will be no immediate instructions. Look around. Explore. Communicate with each other. If you would like to take notes along the way, you will find a technology that allows you to do so on the ship. 

While on board, you will be presented with several realistic challenges that will serve as hurdles or barriers along the way. As a team, you will need to work together to solve them. 

If you find that you need help throughout the challenge, you will be able to contact us via radio, but will otherwise need to work together to complete the mission on time. If you do contact us, remember that you are 250,025 lightyears away from us, so you’ll need to describe what you are seeing, doing, and having trouble with so that we can assist you. It is likely that we can only provide you with hints though, and not complete solutions.

There is an emergency hatch in case anyone on the crew determines that they need to evacuate the ship. If this situation arises, please have someone on your team notify Mission Command via the radio so that we can intercept their escape pod and provide assistance as needed.

In order to preserve the secrecy of the mission, we request that you refrain from sharing any photos or stories until after all space crews have attempted the mission. If you do take photos or video, we also require that you ask the permission of your fellow crew members before doing so. The ship has been designed in a really intentional way. As such, please leave all supplies and materials on board for future missions and space crews’ use. 

As a reminder, the clock is ticking; you have 30 minutes to complete this mission before you land. Good luck and welcome to the 2019 OLC Accelerate Escape Room Mission!

Lessons from storytelling

Before I reflect on the story above, I want to first mention that for OLC Accelerate 2019, I had an amazing co-lead and co-storyteller (Adam Davi). That said, as you can see, there were some guideline-like statements we needed to include prior to participants beginning the escape room. One of those things, for instance, was the expectation that participants left escape room items and tools in the room. Another was that they if they took pictures, they waited to share them until after the conference (as to not reveal puzzles or clues to those who had yet to try the challenge). That said, rather than simply saying that, we embedded those on-boarding points into the story itself. This one story, then, not only on-boarded folks to the experience but also shared the beginning part of the plot, making space for participants to carry the story through the middle of the plot. They knew the story was set in space, they were introduced to key characters and plot points, they had a sense of what they were meant to accomplish, and they were given some direction as to what to do when they started (this final point was incredibly important because we were asking them to also dive right into the core of the story). From here, the last thing we needed to ensure was a sense of plot ending. As designers that love a good cliff-hanger and the idea that story doesn’t ever really end..but rather continues to grow and transform even after we leave it…we decided to have the escape room end that year with the potential for new and future chapters (i.e. after they completed the escape room they knew they completed the major time-sensitive challenge and had successfully landed on Planet X, but also knew that what came next in the universe we invited them into was the story of settling the planet and creating a new future for humanity). So we decided to have the end of the story be an ‘end for now.’ 

Playful fake newspaper titled "Mount Innovatus News" utilized for the 2019 OLC Innovate Escape Room. Newspaper includes images and text, representing escape room story-related content

As I designed these escape rooms for the OLC I learned a lot about storytelling along the way. One of my favorite things was that I could layer and develop story in a number of ways, locations, and modalities. Take the video “Mission Command 00117” for example. In it, we let participants know that at that point in the story and experience, they had made it to the “Fife Schuster,” a space supply station they needed to dock with. You can see we also played with the personas of Mission Command (even dressed in cheap space suits and used commanding tone and physical gestures to hopefully give off a sense that what came next was something they should focus on…in this case we were about to give them an important clue). What was beneficial about this is it enabled us to layer aspects of the story in fun ways and not stress about telling the whole story in the same moment. In a sense, they discovered more of the story as they went. 

Another example is my use of a fake newspaper for the 2019 OLC Innovate Escape Room. In the context of that escape room, participants were a team of rangers (i.e. park rangers) in search of lost team members and safety…incentivized to act fast due to a looming, dangerous storm. Like the Mission Command video above, the newsprint was easy to make but had a playful impact in supporting and forwarding the story I was telling. It included one newspaper article, “Mount Innovatus ranked No. 8 on danger scale,” that was critical for participants to read (it included a crucial clue they needed in their puzzle solving), but I took the time to add in other fun details that helped the story be a more engrossing and compelling one…even though you could technically argue they were ‘unnecessary’ since they didn’t help folks solve anything. These layers, though, provided me additional locations to intentionally weave the story I was telling and make for a truly fun and playful learning experience as participants moved from plot point to plot point. They also helped me ensure that everything added to the escape room meaningfully contributed to the experience.

Stepping back and thinking about the ways educators can use the concept of Plot in their design work, you can use educational escape rooms as a useful point of reflection. 

  • Are you telling a story across the entire learning space (say an entire course) or for just a portion of it? (We’d encourage you to dwell on the fact that you are, in fact, engaging in storytelling while you teach…you just might not have ever considered what stories you are/are not telling and how you are doing so).
  • When learners begin to engage with your designs (whether that be course content (like a syllabus, a presentation, or an activity) or even the general learning space, are they entering into the story from the beginning, middle, or end?
  • How are you introducing people to the stories you are telling or the stories being told? Have you ever considered using story to introduce an assignment, course guidelines, or even to help move from one course module/section to another?
  • Is the learning space you’re designing and helping to facilitate one where you, and you alone, drive the story or are there opportunities for others to help the story develop? What would it look like if learners had agency in where the story went for a given assignment or even the course itself? 
  •  In what ways do you or can you imagine layering the stories told in the educational spaces you work in so that they further connect, structure, and deepen the experience?

Educational Escape Room Collaborative Brainstorming Activity

For this activity we’re asking you to dive right in by thinking about how you could utilize escape rooms (and escape room design) in the educational spaces you work. Ready? Jump into this collaborative Google Spreadsheet to start designing your own educational escape room

Did you know the OLC has a fully asynchronous Escape Room for the 2020 Virtual Innovate Conference?

This year’s conference escape room, brought to you by the amazing Dr. Kyrs Ziska Strange, has been designed to be fully asynchronous. So pop in and out as you like, even come back to the puzzle after a few days if you are stuck, and have fun with this year’s playfully (and meta) themed challenge as you test your wits to break into the villainous lair Krys has creatively composed for you!

Enter & Escape!