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Cover Story: Room escape games have arrived in Atlanta

Why people are paying to get locked inside small rooms - for fun!

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A billionaire playboy hustler has stolen a precious jewel from the British royal family and it's up to me, my boyfriend, and six strangers to retrieve it from his study and get out of there before he returns from the golf course. The clock is ticking. We have 60 minutes to search for clues, solve puzzles, find the jewel, and make our exit. We set to work tearing the room apart.

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The study looks like it was plucked from the board game Clue. I can imagine the dastardly gent propping his feet up on the large wooden desk, watching the flames roar inside the fireplace and admiring the sporting trophies lining the mantle. A painting of a mustachioed man hangs next to a faux elephant head and other souvenirs from foreign exploits. My teammates include another young couple and a family with two pre-teen kids. Within moments of meeting, we're shouting at each other as we frantically rifle through the bookshelf, crawl under the desk, and scan a world map mural searching for leads. As we discover hidden messages and puzzle pieces, we form small groups and attack the problems. The challenges are hard. They require verbal, mathematical, and kinetic skill. We unravel mysteries that lead to more mysteries, revealing a secret doorway to a hidden room where further riddles await. A voice sounds through the intercom, providing a valuable hint from our game master, who's watching us on closed-circuit cameras placed throughout the room.

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With just seven minutes left on the clock, my team has recovered the stolen jewel, and we believe we've cracked the code needed to open the door's electronic lock. We hold our breath as we punch in the four digits and wait for the green light. Beep beep beep — we're out.

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We've solved the Study, the flagship game at Mission: Escape in Midtown. All over Atlanta, people are paying about $30 apiece to be locked in rooms with strangers for an hour. They're called room escape games, and they're popping up at a remarkable rate around the metro area. Eight such companies are currently operating in Atlanta. Seven of them opened within the past year. Collectively, these establishments offer more than 20 games, and new rooms are on the way. Mission: Escape plans to open as many as 10 locations by 2018.

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? ? Eric Cash? ? ? Players work against the clock to try to escape the Study at Mission: Escape.? ? ?
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? ? Eric Cash? ? ? The owners of Mission: Escape, Joel Rubis (clockwise from top), Morty Hodge, Kyle Rubis, and Jenny Hodge? ? ?
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? ? Eric Cash? ? ? The map in Mission: Escape’s lobby shows players have come from across the country and beyond to play.? ? ??
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The Study launched in March and turned a profit within one month. It's drawn visitors from all over the world — including cast members of "The Walking Dead" — as well as landing a national TV spot in the VH1 show "T.I. and Tiny: The Family Hustle."

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Brothers Kyle and Joel Rubis founded Mission: Escape with their sister, Jenny Hodge, and her husband, Morty. The family became hooked on room escape after playing a game during a trip to Nashville.

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"We pretty much decided immediately that we wanted to do it," Kyle says. "We just could not stop talking about it all night. So the next day, we were driving home from Nashville, and we were already brainstorming names for the business."

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Less than four months after the Nashville trip, Kyle and Joel had both quit their jobs to focus on Mission: Escape full-time. Jenny and Morty held out on making needed renovations to their home and instead invested their funds and energy into a room reserved for strangers. Less than six months after the idea first sparked, the Study opened to the public.

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Room escape pro tips

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Room escape FAQ

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Room escape began as an online phenomenon that emerged in the real world as live-action games in Japan in 2007. Since then, the trend has spread across the globe, taking over Europe and landing here in the United States in 2012. Large cities such as Los Angeles and New York were among the first to catch on. Both have 30 escape rooms now.

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The concept is new to Atlanta — the first version, Trapped in a Room with a Zombie, opened in April 2014 — but it caught on quickly. During an average week, Mission: Escape receives up to 300 visitors. On its best day, it welcomed 136 customers in one afternoon. Since players generally don't repeat rooms, game creators are scrambling to build new ones. The imagined scenarios range from the playful — being locked in a CNN-looking newsroom or a magician's hideaway — to the macabre — getting trapped at the CDC during an outbreak or inside a room with corpses and zombies. Friends, families, and couples flock to the rooms for entertainment, and businesses have started to bring employees for team building. Some human resources managers even bring in potential hires to see how they'll perform or cooperate with co-workers. What makes these games so fun? Why do people want to get terrified together? What does this say about our personalities?

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I'm not sure if getting locked in a room for team building is a great idea, but I ask my co-workers if they want to try it. Three of them join me. A new company called Paranoia Quest opened in July in South Downtown, just a few blocks from CL's office. We sign up for the Inception room, and we get the backstory: We've been having horrible recurring nightmares for so long that we decided to see a specialist. The doctor has a machine that he claims will send us back into our old dreams so that we can see they're not so scary after all. The problem is he sends us to someone else's dream instead. Now we've got an hour to figure out whose dream we're in, find his or her contact information, and ask for the way out. If we don't make it, we'll be caught inside the nightmare forever.

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Why would anybody self-select, much less pay, to live through a literal nightmare? According to Kevin Swartout, a social psychologist and professor at Georgia State University, room escape games appeal most to people with sensation-seeking personalities. "It's the same reason people do other experiential activities, like laser tag and even bungee jumping on the farther end of the spectrum," he says.

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The mental stimulation can be addictive. "Some people have what we call a high need for cognition. They want to think, they want to be cognitively challenged," Swartout says. "They seek out information, they don't take things at face value, and they like to figure things out for themselves. They're not the type of people who take the easy way out. They would much rather work for an answer. That's fulfilling for them."

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There's also a strong social element at play. The puzzles aren't designed to be completed alone. Everyone in the room must contribute for the mission to be successful. There is, as they say, strength in numbers.

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Normally, individuals or small groups who sign up to play in the same time slot are combined into a team of 10-12 players. But on the night I take my co-workers, it's just the four of us. Our size puts us at a disadvantage, since we'll have to solve all of the problems with less brainpower, but we remain confident. We agree on a strategy: We'll scour the room for clues, calling them out to each other as we find them, and then we'll work alone or in pairs to decode the pieces.

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The door opens and we scatter throughout the room. It's a pub scene crafted so skillfully it feels like a stage set. A vintage cash register sits atop the bar. Behind it, shelves display antique beer cans, glass bottles of all shapes and sizes, retro advertising signs, and a cloudy mirror. Concert fliers are pasted on a wall behind a pool table.

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Information could be taped to the bottom of a beer can, nestled inside the pool table pockets, or scrawled on a scrap of paper tucked in a stack of coasters. The only way to find clues is to search the room high and low. Though most try to be mindful not to wreck the place, some groups get so caught up in the thrill that they ravage everything in sight. One team ripped open and unstuffed the couch cushions. Another tore flyers off the walls. A different gang unplugged everything in the room, temporarily shutting down the entire game until power could be reset. One group used a makeshift tool to unscrew and remove all the light switch covers.

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? ? Eric Cash? ? ? The Inception room at Paranoia Quest is so carefully crafted it feels like a stage set.? ? ?
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? ? Eric Cash? ? ? Dmitry Mikhaylov owns Paranoia Quest and plans to expand with locations throughout Atlanta and other cities.? ? ??
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"We had one client who was a bodybuilder — it looked like he had muscles and nothing else," says Paranoia Quest owner Dmitry Mikhaylov. "It was funny, he actually broke through all our doors upstairs in the Zombie Apocalypse room. They are all magnetic, so he got upset that he couldn't solve the puzzles, and instead, he just pushed the doors through and physically opened all three, just like that."

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None of my colleagues is a bodybuilder. We'll have to use our mental strength to get through the door. We begin finding clues and decide to keep them together in a specific spot so we can all reference them. Our minds are racing to make connections between what appear to be random and meaningless debris. Does the color of that girl's hair in the picture have anything to do with this riddle? What about the number of stirring straws in each dispenser on the bar — does that mean something?

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Teams who learn to share ideas freely are less likely to suffer process loss, whether in the game or at the office, according to Swartout. "A lot of times, there are great ideas among a group," he says. "But they're not shared because people are afraid that they'll look bad or that if they disagree with someone who's higher than them on the pecking order, they'll get in trouble."

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Swartout uses the JFK administration to illustrate group decision-making strategies. He says things can go one of two ways: like the Bay of Pigs or the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Bay of Pigs invasion was one of the worst blunders in U.S. history, partly because an authority figure with delusions of grandeur had a terrible idea and nobody recognized its flaws or asked questions until it was too late. After that disaster, the administration developed techniques to avoid groupthink in the future. JFK wouldn't be present for all meetings, lest his power cloud the war room's judgment. The team would also appoint a devil's advocate, whose role was to challenge every new idea and think of alternatives. They applied this approach to deal with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and "that's been put down in the history books as one of the best foreign policy moves the U.S. has dealt with," he says.

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As the clock in the Inception room ticks down — 30 minutes, 20 minutes, 10 minutes — our determination increases. We find a blacklight and use it to uncover a key element of the puzzle. We open a padlock to a drawer with another critical piece inside. It feels like we're almost there, on the verge of a breakthrough, when the buzzer goes off. We were so close. It's infuriating and exhilarating.

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Defeat is the feeling most people experience after playing a room escape game. A success rate of about 25-40 percent is the industry standard for a high-quality, challenging room. In other words, the game creators hope the majority of players will fail — but just barely. "We want most of the groups to get there. Even the groups that don't get out, we want them to make it almost to the end," says Joel Rubis of Mission: Escape. The sensation of nearly succeeding, but losing by a narrow margin, may be even more powerful than the ego boost and bragging rights of winning.

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"Some people, when they experience failure, they get a spike in cortisol and a spike in adrenaline," Swartout says. Cortisol is a steroid hormone related to our fight-or-flight instincts. Basically, it's the fight. When cortisol is released, we feel more aggressive, competitive, and alert. It's the chemical that makes us want to slam our fists on the table or punch a hole in the wall. A rush of cortisol is common after sports events and even championship chess games.

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"This is an evolutionary response activated by failure," Swartout says. "Those who get a spike in cortisol are the people who are going to want to probably sign up again, because that's just their fight response: 'I'm coming back tomorrow. This is happening.'"

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I make a reservation for another room escape game three days later.

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? ? Eric Cash? ? ? Participants search for clues at Trapped in a Room with a Zombie in Tucker.? ? ?
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? ? Eric Cash? ? ? The sign on the game room door warns visitors at Trapped in a Room with a Zombie.? ? ?
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? ? Eric Cash? ? ? The lobby at Trapped in a Room with a Zombie is covered with hundreds of name tags with the pseudonyms of players past.? ? ??
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I'm alone and I'm heading to a modest office complex in Tucker to play Trapped in a Room with a Zombie. Unlike the previous rooms, this one was not originally developed in Atlanta. It's a licensed reproduction of a game that first started in Columbus, Ohio, and has been duplicated in 25 cities around the U.S. and beyond, including London and Madrid.

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This room has a zombie inside. Every five minutes, the chain holding the zombie gets a little longer. If the zombie touches a player, she's out of the game. The eliminated player has to stand in the "dead zone" in the back of the room, where she can continue to talk to teammates but may not actively participate in the game.

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The backstory makes little sense: The room used to be the laboratory of Dr. Oxy, who accidentally infected herself with a virus that turns people into undead monsters. In order to prevent the disease from spreading, Dr. Oxy spent her final hours creating puzzles and booby traps to keep her zombified body entombed in the lab forever. For some unexplained reason, our team has managed not only to get inside the room, but also lock ourselves in there with the zombie. We must solve her riddles to escape.

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It's an illogical narrative, but like the thousands of people who have played this game before me, I'm willing to go with it. As are Spiderman, Lara Croft, Anita Man, and all the other fake-named folks whose game I'm crashing. Everyone has to assume pseudonyms. (Again, this is not explained.) We introduce ourselves and exchange a few words about how nervous we all are before the game begins. Paris Cyrus, an attendant in a lab coat, joins us. She'll be inside the room, not speaking to us, but making sure we don't hurt each other or the zombie, who, people tend to forget, is a living human actor.

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Cyrus opens the door, and I tiptoe behind Spiderman into the darkened laboratory. The production value is noticeably lower than the rooms I've played before. Even with the lights off, I can see it's a plain room with a jumble of duct-taped furniture and a couple bloodstains on the walls. The newest room at Mission: Escape, the Hotel, is a Wes Anderson-inspired luxury resort with four chambers. At Paranoia Quest, Mikhaylov and his engineers are building a realistic morgue, complete with a coroner's table and autopsy drawers. Atlanta-based businesses are rejecting the franchise-style, cookie-cutter approach that spawned the escape game industry and creating more expensive, more elaborate setups with each new room. They're using integrated original audio and video recordings, stylish decor, and even touch-screen tablets with proprietary apps to make the games more immersive.

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"In a few years, I know in Atlanta we're going to have 20 places like Paranoia Quest, easily," says Mikhaylov, who has already dropped $120,000 to build three rooms. "If you research Europe and Asia, they have so many room escape games right now that a lot of them are struggling with keeping clients. There are so many choices. Everybody is going to choose the best of the best. That is what we're preparing for here."

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Though Trapped in a Room with a Zombie follows a strict template, most of the room escape designers in Atlanta are making up the rules as they go. Video games, TV programs, books, and actual dreams serve as inspiration. It's not uncommon to find the entire crew of Mission: Escape in the break room engaging in a competition they just devised. Many of their best puzzles are conceived and workshopped during playtime.

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? ? Eric Cash? ? ? A dead body awaits players inside the Zombie Apocalypse room at Paranoia Quest.? ? ?
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? ? Eric Cash? ? ? Paranoia Quest player Sarah Swanson fends off the zombie, played by Kimberly Graves.? ? ?

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? ? Eric Cash? ? ? Perry Frost, who goes by the stage name Harley, poses in the Hotel at Mission: Escape.? ? ??
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At Paranoia Quest, Mikhaylov takes an overall theme — a secret government facility, for instance — and hires creative writers to flesh out the story. Once the narrative is complete, he brainstorms puzzles that fit into it and employs a team of builders to bring it all to life. He also works with film and music production crews to add newsreels, soundtracks, and sound effects to the rooms. The result is mesmerizing; more like being inside an action movie than a tourist trap.

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But what Trapped in a Room with a Zombie lacks in aesthetics, it makes up for in action. The value of this game is not in the props or the puzzles but in the spectacle. When we enter, the zombie is nowhere in sight. We try not to panic as we search the room, convinced she could pop out from anywhere at any time. Some seconds pass, and we hear chains clinking from behind a closed closet door. We're safe — for now. We decide to retrieve the clues closest to her hiding spot before she appears. We're still scrambling to open a lockbox beside the closet door five minutes later when an alarm goes off and she emerges.

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She crawls on all fours with a blank but knowing expression behind her darkened eyes. She lets out a low, raspy growl as she approaches, shifting her gaze from player to player, sizing us up. Her skin is blue and bruised; her medical scrubs are spattered with blood. Though she doesn't talk, she listens. Her behaviors mimic the scientist she once was, observing our personalities and experimenting with different ways to taunt us.

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About halfway through our quest, when the zombie's chain is so long she can reach almost every part of the room, we discover that we can distract her with singing and dancing. Our team turns into an impromptu glee club, belting out everything from "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" to "Single Ladies." (We soon learn the zombie really likes Beyoncé.) The zombie creeps over to a corner where some women are huddled together. Their voices grow louder and more hysterical as the monster nears. One player can't take it. She breaks down and begins to sob. The zombie finds someone else to pick on.

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? ? Eric Cash? ? ? If the zombie touches a player, he or she must stand in the “dead zone” in the back of the room.? ? ?

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? ? Eric Cash? ? ? The zombie’s chain gets longer over the course of the game, and some participants get stuck before breaking out in song to distract her.? ? ?
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? ? Eric Cash? ? ? The room attendant, Paris Cyrus, stands by to observe the participants at Trapped in a Room with a Zombie.? ? ??
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Zombie rooms are popular everywhere, but Atlanta may have a unique opportunity to capitalize on them as "The Walking Dead's" fan base expands and more tourists come here to see where it's filmed.

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"A lot of Paranoia Quest's clients actually come from 'The Walking Dead' tour," says game master Steven Dunigan. Mikhaylov says he's working on a partnership with the tour company to become the official affiliate. Time will tell if older, non-local facilities like Trapped in a Room with a Zombie will be able to keep up.

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Cyrus stays mum but begins bouncing up and down, grinning with hope and anticipation when she realizes we've cracked the final code to get out of the room. Even the zombie takes pause. Thirty seconds are on the clock. We elect a guy to start punching the code in the electronic lock and call out a complex series of steps to him. It's like playing Dance Dance Revolution or entering the infamous Konami Code: up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A. He makes a wrong move. We have to start over again. Five seconds remain. Four, three, two, one. The timer sounds and a collective "NOOOO!" rings through the room.

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We finish the code anyway and sulk back to the lobby. Cyrus asks us all to gather round as she calls up each team member, one by one, to receive applause. She'd been taking notes on our performance the whole time. Spiderman is our MVP, solving the most puzzles. John Coffee is recognized for being the best communicator, always yelling to let us know when the zombie was right behind someone. Dianna Bana wins the Indiana Jones award for zipping by and dodging the zombie to gather clues in hard-to-reach areas. We congratulate each other and snap a few group photos with signs reading "I taste good" and "Zombie food."

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This is what is known in the industry as froth. Transitioning out of the escape scenario and back into the real world, processing emotions, and debriefing with the game master and other teammates is a key part of the experience. For many people, including the business owners, it's the best part.

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"You're going to get people that are kind of scared at first, since they have no idea what to expect. But once they get in there, you see their mood completely change," Joel Rubis says. "Going over the rules, you'll see some guy come in here, he's got this stern look. And it's cool to see his face go from nothing on it to a big smile, saying he had a great time after he walks out. That's the majority of the people."

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His brother-in-law Morty agrees. "I am blown away because we made something that brings people joy. How often can you be a part of something that makes people happy? That's incredible."




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