Escape rooms – a new format for fighting disinformation?

“The bulk of disinformation on the Internet could be combated with basic evaluation skills” (Nicole Cooke)

“While facts make an impression, they just don’t matter for our decision-making, a conclusion that has a great deal of support in the psychological sciences” (Brian Resnick)

I wish the first statement were true. I fear the second is closer to the mark. At a recent talk I asked my audience to raise their hands if they had a family member or close friend who believes that Covid-19 vaccines are unsafe, that the U.S. presidential election was stolen, or holds some other conviction that runs counter to all known evidence. I then asked the full room of raised hands how many of them were able to change those people’s minds by presenting them with facts and logical reasons? Every hand dropped. Unfortunately, for many people this is the world we live in today. While misinformation has existed for as long as information has, which is to say forever, the magnitude and nature of the challenge is unlike anything ever witnessed. 

Media literacy is a critical component for addressing misinformation. While social media platforms, government and other institutions have important roles as well, the individuals and organized groups that want to deceive you will always find new ways to do so, aided by new technologies and techniques. As such, individuals are the final defense and it is incumbent that we provide the public with the skills and knowledge needed to become resilient to misinformation. If media literacy is to be the answer, though, I believe we need to move beyond a largely rationalist approach that underpins most curriculum and pedagogy and incorporate research from the cognitive sciences to account for the ways in which misinformation triggers emotional responses and exploits psychological tendencies. Many scholars and practitioners have come to this position as well. 

I have a long history working in the information literacy field. In late 2019 my colleagues and I were awarded a grant from the Knight Foundation to establish a university-wide center to study misinformation and, importantly, develop new ways to combat it ( I focused my research on educational approaches, primarily in public libraries and their role in providing lifelong learning. For the most part, I found that public libraries have relied on conventional media literacy curriculum and resources, though at the same time the librarians we interviewed were quick to note that they knew intuitively these programs were insufficient and were eager for new ideas. One problem was reaching people who are more prone to misinformation or who are themselves contributing to its spread. The people who attended programs like ‘how to spot fake news’ was like preaching to the choir. This posed a dilemma — how to create a program to learn about misinformation and attract people who don’t want to learn about misinformation? 

Games have been used in education for a long time, and there are online games about misinformation that are showing promising results. Get Bad News and Breaking Harmony Square top the list and I highly recommend them. For my part, I arrived at the idea of creating an escape room on misinformation, and recruited two people to help realize this vision: Jin Ha Lee who leads our GAMER Research Group and Lindsay Morse, co-founder and chief creative officer of Puzzle Break, the first escape room company in the U.S. and conveniently located in Seattle. Together with a group of students we created the Euphorigen Investigation, an online (due to the pandemic) escape room. Our aim with the game is to (a) increase understanding of common disinformation technologies and tactics, and (b) generate awareness of the affective influences of disinformation by evoking feelings of vulnerability, challenging preconceived notions, and inducing reflection on the consequences of spreading misinformation. We view this game as a supplement, not replacement for more conventional media literacy training. In fact, our game does not include any skills at all and is instead focused on creating an immersive and memorable experience that we hope activates areas of the brain that will cause people to be more skeptical when encountering problematic information. 

We piloted Euphorigen in several libraries, didn’t use the term “misinformation” or “fake news” to appeal to a diverse public, and collected data by recording the gameplay and post-game discussion and administering surveys. While analysis is still in progress, these quotes are reflective of the responses we received. 

“I felt confident at the start of the escape room that I knew what I was doing, and that spotting misinformation would be easy. But the process taught me a lot about how easily I am fooled, especially when trying to do things in a rush.

“I didn’t realize the level of sophistication and trickery that goes into spreading misinformation – my tendency is to think that people who are susceptible to misinformation are either not very intelligent or educated”

We were recently awarded a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to make Euphorigen available for educational use, create additional escape rooms, and develop a design kit for others to use to make their own escape rooms. We look forward to expanding this project and welcome opportunities, like Media & Learning, to demonstrate it and receive feedback. You can follow the project at Loki’s Loop.

Editors note: Join Chris and other colleagues as we take part in a participatory adventure using an escape room dealing with the topic of misinformation and discuss this approach as a learning experience on 23 September. Find out more here.


Chris Coward, Senior Principal Research Scientist, Information School, University of Washington