Saturday, March 5, 2016

Armchair forensic scientist meets escape rooms

I was watching Brain Games on the National Geographic Channel the other day. In this episode, a group of three people were locked inside a glass-walled room, from which they had to figure out how to get out. To help them decipher the life-size puzzle, they had to answer a series of riddles. And they had one hour to get out. According to Brain Games, these participants had to use all parts of their brains to figure out how to escape the room. Hence, one had to have the mind of a detective and/or a forensic scientist to find and to piece clues together. This meant that this type of activity is a piece of cake for people with advanced degrees, right?


Roman, a former staff at IRRI (he's now studying in Singapore), organised an activity for a group of people, including PhD graduates, MSc students, and BSc graduates. It was a perfect way to see how people with different educational attainments processed problems.

We were stuck in a dimly lit room, blindfolded at first, and were supposed to figure out how to get out of it. The PhD's kept finding useless clues and were continuously chasing after red herrings... The MSc's and BSc's kept seeing the clues that moved the team forward. Ha! Finally feeling successful because we were getting out of the room, we bitterly found out that we're trapped in yet another room. The thing is, clues from the first room were also useful in the second one. 

In the second room, the PhD's once again wandered aimlessly, seeing meaning in red herrings. To their credit, they also did see valid clues... And these helped the team move to solving the mystery of the locked door. The MSc's and BSc's, meanwhile, found the bulk of the clues that would bring the group closer to freedom. With plenty of time to spare, everyone felt confident that we were on our way out with the discovery of the right key.

Opening the door, we found ourselves in a third room! That's when everyone realised that we actually didn't have enough time! A crucial clue was set aside as the clock ticked on. 

When the timer went off, we discovered that there was yet another room! Gosh! We used too much time to solve problems in the first two rooms! The PhD's were obviously overthinking everything while the MSc's and BSc's brought common sense and the power of elimination with them. But then, most of the group was new to escaping rooms... we didn't know what to do!

One thing about PhD's: they're sore losers. We can't let go of a problem until we've solved it. Hence, we just had to subject ourselves to another escape room and see if our crystallised intelligence from the initial exposure would help. I think it did. However, the common sense used by the BSc's and MSc's put them at an advantage: they know how to interpret answers that stare at them at the face; PhD's could find ten hypotheses and possibilities which need to be crossed off, following Sherlock Holmes' philosophy, "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

In the next escape room challenge, the PhD's were able to contribute more to the solution of yet another multi-room puzzle. However, that bulk of the figuring out towards the solution was done by the non-PhD's. We did get out of the room in under one hour (finally!) but not fast enough to be on the leaderboard. So we only gained bragging rights. Nevertheless, we were still happy... getting out of the room was a big feat in itself.

I guess practice makes perfect. This is a perfect mind game that equalises the playing field of different educational attainments. Because of this, the escape room is a good way to strengthen teams and develop camaraderie among individuals. I'd like to play again one day.