Escape rooms don’t often come to mind when thinking about campus rec. However, University of Southern Mississippi (USM) Campus Rec created their own take on the popular trend with Eagle Escape — a 690-square-foot, three-room attraction open to the public.
What first started out as a joke is now one of the most unique features USM Campus Rec has for students and the community.
The idea came from Jason Darby, the associate director of Programs for USM Campus Rec. Darby and other coworkers had a few empty spaces in their facility they needed to make use of. He had recently visited an escape room and teased that the empty layout at USM was setup perfectly for a similar activity.
“Eventually, we took the idea and decided to run with it,” said Darby. “In addition, there was an adjacent space that allowed us to set up our control room to monitor and run the game for participants. This was a perfect existing area that we were able to repurpose to offer something new in our facility.”
A Plan Comes Together
Darby said Campus Rec was first challenged by the university president to find programming that would stand out and be a model for other recreation programs. Their focus was attracting students who normally wouldn’t seek out the department’s traditional offerings.
“This is a unique on-campus feature that checks all of those boxes,” said Darby. “Our director gave us the green light at the beginning of fall 2021 to get moving on the project. Step one was simply researching and determining what type of theme and puzzles to plan out along with adjustments needed to be made in the space.”
After checking out similar games, Darby and company decided the price for entry would be $5 per student and $20 for community members. He said the entry fee is purposefully cheaper than what the current escape room company in the community is charging so Eagle Escape can possibly be more appealing to the public.
After settling on a theme that would transfer over to Campus Rec easily, Darby designed the layout himself. Then, test runs were conducted on small groups to determine how challenging the attraction should be to complete.
“We had to adjust or remove puzzles that were too difficult or served as unnecessary barriers,” he said. “The goal when designing the room was not to frustrate participants, but for them to have fun. We officially opened the room to the public in April 2022.”
Darby specifically gave credit to their marketing department and student graphic designers who developed the branding, graphics and videos for the escape room.
Eagle Escape Features
There currently is just one theme for Eagle Escape titled “Save Seymour!” In this premise, the university mascot, Seymour, has been kidnapped. Players have an hour to rescue him before the school pays a ransom to get him back. The main room is constructed like a classroom, and the other two spaces are built to look like offices.
Darby said they chose the Seymour storyline to ensure the activity had a very strong tie-in to USM. He, along with a couple ther “game masters,” currently run the game from the control room. But soon, student staff will operate Eagle Escape.
The game has some technology-based puzzles. However, Darby said most obstacles could be implemented at little cost for other campus rec departments.
A special escape room software was purchased to communicate with players to run the timing system and videos. Through the system, the game masters can pass along clues and messages on a television screen to participants. A closed-circuit camera system also monitors the activity from the control room.
Eagle Escape’s Impact
Groups can reserve times for the escape room on Campus Rec’s Fusion portal or by emailing the department. Either way, Darby said they are swarmed with requests heading into the new school year.
“The response has been extremely positive,” he said. “People are first and foremost surprised this is an activity we run here. As first-year student groups have come into our building for summer orientation, there has been quite the buzz about them wanting to try the room when they arrive on campus.”
Darby said other benefits of Eagle Escape include further revenue generation for Campus Rec, increased outreach to the Hattiesburg, Mississippi, community and higher employee engagement. Also, the game acts as a place for other campus groups to gather for team building activities.
“We hear so much about burnout and the Great Resignation. But engaging in this project provided tasks that were different than the normal, daily routine,” added Darby. “Eagle Escape has been a fun program to work with, and fun is what drew most of us to this line of work. It is important we don’t forget that.”