CAS9, an ethical escape room

CAS9 is a game that aims to explore “escape rooms” as medium for ethical debate around synthetic biology. The game takes place in a office room where a team of 3-5 players, during one hour, explores the space, discovers cues, solves puzzles and learn about synthetic biology. The player’s final goal is to access a computer by entering a username and password. In order to achieve this goal they need to solve different challenges. The physical space, the narrative, and the game dynamics create an immersive experience. A ethical dilemma is slowly built during the game play by embedding multiple perspectives upon synthetic biology in the puzzles. Once the players gain access to the computer, an ethical question appears on the screen, inviting the players to engage in a short debate. Right after the game, the Game master invites the players for a debrief session, which serves the purpose, among others, to dissolve the “magic circle” and bring back the players to the real world.

Project by Alice Potopov, Erica Coria, Lisa Rauch and Marjo Tikkanen, from the Master’s Programme in Interaction Design at Malmö University, 2016.

The project brief was the design of an escape room with synthetic biology as theme. Escape rooms can be defined as a live action game where people are usually locked in a room and need to solve different challenges in a specific time frame in order to escape the room. Escape rooms usually require teamwork, communication, attention to detail and lateral thinking.
Synthetic biology is a discipline that uses engineering principles to design and assemble biological components. Its achievements have been possible by the emerge of technologies that enables the standardization of biological parts, reading and writing of DNA (sequencing and fabrication), and the development of CAD software.

The research started by looking at the vast landscape of existing escape rooms. Different facilities have been visited and interviews to Game masters have been conducted. The examples collected have been mapped according to different features, such as demographic of players, game theme and narrative, puzzle organisation, feelings and atmosphere, role of the game master, purpose. The research showed how an engaging experience is the result of many elements at play: the power of the narrative, the use of appropriate metaphors and props, the right mix of challenges to be accessible and appealing to a diversified user group, the use of sound and other strategies to create atmosphere, etc.
This complexity became visible during the play-testing sessions, where small changes in the prototype resulted in different playing experience.

The ideation process started by creating possible narrative plots. For each story  puzzle ideas, metaphors and collage have been created. Finally the “Organ farming” story has been selected and developed further. The design process has been characterized by several play-testing session with prototypes. Difficulty level, team dynamic, role of the game-master, clarity of the story, game flow are some of the elements that have been evaluated. Experts from an escape room facility in Malmö have been invited to play test CAS9 and give their feed-back. In this way the game has been refined, striving to reach the best player experience.