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Escape rooms: Why people flock to these 'tourist traps'

Starre Vartan, CNN | 8/31/2017, 6 a.m.
Escape rooms are having a moment. They're the No. 1 local activity for a number of cities around the world ...
Escape rooms are simply mental puzzles played out in the real world's 3-D glory. Ninja Escape

Escape rooms are having a moment. They're the No. 1 local activity for a number of cities around the world on TripAdvisor, and they've been featured on reality shows such as "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills." But don't worry if you've never heard of them; this is your explainer.

Escape rooms are simply mental puzzles played out in the real world's 3-D glory.

Each word-, number- or logic-based challenge in a given escape room, once solved, opens a literal or figurative drawer or door to reveal another important clue. Each solve gets players closer to beating the overall game. In some cities, you escape zombies, while in others, you break out of jail.

If this reminds you of a video game, it's because some say the genesis of the rooms were Japanese gamers who created IRL (in real life) versions of their favorite virtual spaces.

Others argue that they originated with the (super) smart set; MIT's Mystery Hunt has been around since the early 1980s. The MIT games involve more than just puzzle smarts, and include genuine scientific skills like wet-lab testing, DNA examination and thorough scientific knowledge. But they do have a lot in common with escape rooms.

Those who excel at crossword puzzles and number games tend to love escape rooms, since it brings their skills to bear as part of solving a larger puzzle. But unlike doing an acrostic or Sudoku, or even a labyrinth or maze, escape rooms aren't a solo solve-it experience.

"They're a super-fun thing to with a group of people; they're not something to do on your own," says Cat Bohannon, a Seattle-based science writer who has tried several rooms. "Preferably you have at least three to four people, though some are set up to be a couples thing. But it's better for a double-date situation."

Many escape rooms are organized so that you can bring a group of people and have the room to yourselves, while others might match you up with random strangers to solve the puzzle.

Since time in the escape room ranges from an hour to 90 minutes, strangers can actually be an interesting dynamic.

"You never really know what someone's secret nerd-dom is. Maybe they're really good with word problems or finding patterns or brute force solutions when other people are looking for complex answers," says Bohannon.

Finding out what everyone's good at is part of the fun, whether you know them or not.

That said, escape rooms are never a guaranteed win. Especially if you've never done one before, your group can easily fail the challenge in the allotted time given. Your mission to save the world from aliens or knock down the Berlin Wall could flop, and it's these "real" stakes that may be what keeps people coming back for more.

Strike Exitus in Sydney, Australia

Jacqui Angus, the brand manager for Funlab, the company behind eight escape rooms throughout Australia, says her best advice is to newbie puzzlers is: "Bring your cleverest mates."

Strike's rooms run the gamut when it comes to themes which include "a space station, a casino heist situation, a haunted house experience and a computer meltdown drama," says Angus.