Exploring the Egyptian escape room

A proposal for the design of an inclusive escape room to be experienced in the dark submitted to the Carnegie Mellon University Carnival Committee.

Plan

  • Concept Overview and Introduction
  • Exploring the Ideas of Inclusive Design, Accessibility and Universal Design
  • The Codesign and Participatory Design Methodology
  • Exploring the Escape Room Experience
  • Design Process
  • Conclusion

Introduction

Imagine exploring a dark room, set in the style of an Egyptian cemetery inspired by the Valley of the Kings to solve puzzles the ancient way. While some of us look up to the visual touchpoints that recreate the semblance of this chilly and eerie yet regal atmosphere, how may we customize this experience for those with a visual disability? Can they visualize the cloud of smoke caused by the chilly air? Or can we put a design system in place that brings out the intricately carved glyphs and motifs through touch and feel? How does one go about designing an escape room experience dedicated to people with a visual disability?

Introducing Inclusivity in a World of Exclusion

The concept of inclusive design is a vital one for designers designing for a specific set of audience with a characteristic atypical need. A disability is often seen as a bodily condition of impairment but the disability scholar Lennard Davis challenges the state of normalcy and states that everybody is far from ideal (Hendren, 2020, p.16). Sara Hendren asserts the fact that disability is just a means of discovering how unfinished the world is. The introduction of the ‘bell curve’ and its association to norm and normalcy over the course of history stands testimony to the fact that this world encompasses disabilities that are ordinary in experience yet unique in nature and immeasurable in number, subjected to a variety of social implications. While the medical model of disability suggests that a body is responsible for the nature of its disability, Hendren in her book strongly advocates for the social aspect that states that a disability widens to involve things around one with an atypical orientation, i.e interactions with his/her/their environment.

Hendren describes her experience while designing for Amanda, an Australian Art Historian who embodies dwarfism with a zealous attitude (pp. 5–27). Amanda, through the course of getting a customized lectern designed in order to give talks and welcome audience at shows, works with Hendren’s students and puts forth her need for a tool that can aid her rather than a cure to her atypical orientation.

Holmes (2018) builds on the idea of inclusive design and stresses on the importance of breaking the wall of exclusions while designing. She further contemplates on the challenge of human diversity as a reason to break the ‘wall of exclusions’ and leave behind ability biases. The reference to disability as a way of mismatched interactions rather than a personal health condition is a compelling reference.

In her definition of inclusive design, she describes it as a methodology that enables and draws on the full range of human diversity. She also describes it as a way to design and learn with people who offer a variety of perspectives.

While inclusive design revolves around working with a specific set of people with characteristic perspectives and atypical orientations, universal design is a concept that stresses on the importance of good design, a kind that is usable by all and is accessible to all. Holmes further draws a comparison between Inclusive design as a methodology and universal design as a physical design that revolves around systems while accessibility is an attribute. In layman’s terms, universal design follows a one size fits all analogy and inclusive design is based on the philosophy of one size fits one.

Design By the Community, For the Community

“Nothing about Us without Us”. Sasha Costanza-Chock (2020).

Costanza-Chock introduces us to the idea of a holistic design practice namely codesign and participatory design that is for the community and by the community.

Ruha Benjamin in her piece emphasizes the need for an ‘effective definition of design’ as a means of liberating and being a vehicle of social change. It is beyond and does not just limit to the notion of innovation, out of the box thinking and disruption. The phrase ‘an app will not save us’ is testimony to the portrayal of designers as highly-priced creative resources, a key part of the capitalist system (Benjamin, 2020, p.61).

While Benjamin’s larger ideals of empathy and change for social good are in accordance with that of the analogy of participatory design, Costanza-Chock delves deeper into reminding us of design’s most primal and holistic objective rather than describing a whole design system and process.

The design process of the escape room is inspired by these core methodologies of community-led design and aims to leverage these ideals in the path to curate a successful design system.

The Egyptian Escape to the World of Bliss

The Escape Room experience encompasses a darkroom set in the style of the Egyptian Tomb of the Pharaohs. The entire set up is inspired by the legend of the Valley of the Kings and the Curse of the Pharaohs. The only twist in the tale lies in the experience being designed in an inclusive manner, for those of us with a visual impairment. The endeavour relies heavily on glyphs in the form of tactile textures, puzzles read aloud in an audio format along with quotes and phrases printed in braille along the walls. It also employs the use of the olfactory sense in order to put together different clues.

Figure 1.Tactile Hieroglyphs (Britannica, Hieroglyphic writing)

The plot explores the journey of a commoner in ancient Egypt who decides to imbibe the afterlife rituals of the kings and traces the path of the mighty Pharaoh Ra, commonly worshipped as the god of the Sun depicted with a falcon head. Stepping into the Pharaoh’s realm of sojourning to the world of bliss, the players are posed with audio-tactile challenges and puzzles that need to be solved in order to provide the right answers to the ferocious mythical beings, failing which they will be gobbled up by these mythical creatures. The clues to some of these riddles are contained in the fragrances of the potions that were prevalent as a part of the burial ceremony of ancient Egypt.

Experiencing this in the dark is a way of customizing an inclusive experience for people with visual atypicalities with emphasis on experiencing the Egyptian afterlife rituals through a different perspective and using various multimodalities other than the visual system. The civilization was rich in its culture and heritage and employed a series of multi-sensory elements and experiences in its rites and rituals and one way of experiencing this experience is to look at it with considerable importance from an auditory-olfactory-tactile perspective.

The Design Process

The design of this system is based on the philosophy of inclusive design and focuses on designing for those with a visual disability. As part of the design process, the approach used is inspired by the ideals of codesign or participatory design recommended by Costanza-Chock (2020), where she describes it as a community led research and participatory design process. The objective of using an adaptive framework with a participatory design-based methodology is to create a design system such that it is in sync with the ideas put forth by a representative member of the target group. Thus, codesigning with a visually impaired partner who can guide me throughout my design process will help me in this endeavour of designing an effective Escape Room.

The partners who would form a part of the research and the testing team would represent the three categories on the persona spectrum ranging from those with permanent visual impairment, situational visual atypicalities for eg. those who have undergone cataract or a LASIK surgery and lastly the third category, temporarily challenged individuals or those who for instance in the dark room are unable to see owing to the nature of the environment. This categorisation of the personas would help understand the nature of visual disabilities in its entirety, thus adhering to the motto solve for one, extend to many while creating an effective design solution (Inclusive Microsoft Design, 2016, pp. 34–44).

Fig 2. The Persona Spectrum (Inclusive Microsoft Design, 2016, pp. 34–44)

The initial research will be conducted with representatives from the target group in order to understand the challenges that one might face in solving the escape room puzzles. The clarity in decoding clues that are narrated, the learning curve required to get familiarized with tactile glyphs, the time taken to deduce the ingredients of the fragrances coupled with the ease of working together in a team guided by tactile pathways for each member along the dark room are some vital factors that need to be considered and tested in order to design a worthwhile experience. Understanding the inhibitions and motivations of the target group and iterating and reiterating with repeated testing would form the basis of the design process.

The success of this project would depend on the customized experience of the physical space and environment in its intent of putting together a fun-filled and enlightening experience to all those users with visual atypicalities. The objective of the escape room is to encourage participants to take a sneak peek at the Egyptian rituals of the afterlife in a fun manner, engaging in a team-based activity to solve puzzles and decode ancient phrases and symbols. The design systems and guided pathways would aim to help users find their path in the room safely such that there are no hindrances and obstructions they are subjected to and can make their way to the puzzles in a cohesive manner and communicate with the team to solve clues. While the idea sounds complex, a well researched and designed system is powerful in its intent of uniting previously apprehensive users with these unique games.

Conclusion

Figure 3. The Need for Inclusion (Holmes, 2018, p.132)

Contemplating on the initial thought, can we recreate the ancient Egyptian experience of the Valley of the Kings in a dark room? Can we craft a regal atmosphere through mediums that are devoid of the visual channel and initiate these experiences to those who are visually impaired? The solution lies in the magic of adapting inclusive design as the game-changer. Partnering with Catherine Getchell, Director of the Office of Disability Resources and the team comprising of visually impaired members to set up an escape room for the CMU carnival would be a satisfying endeavour in discovering the joys of using alternate sensory experiences. Gone are the days where a disability is seen as an abnormality or a burden a body is responsible for. The goal of inclusive design is to bridge these gaps by designing with disabled partners and nullifying the mismatch in these interactions thus making this world a fair and accessible place to live in.

References

Holmes, Kat (2018). Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design.

Hendren, Sara (2020). What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World.

Costanza-Chock, Sasha (2020). Design Practices: “Nothing about Us without Us”. Design Justice Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need. (pp. 69–101)

Benjamin, Ruha (2020). Selling Empathy. Race After Technology.

Microsoft Inclusive Design Toolkit (2016). Solve for one, extend to many. (pp. 34–44)

Interaction and Service Designer | Graduate Student at the School of Design, Carnegie Mellon University

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