CSCCE Community Tools Trial Recap: Virtual escape rooms in Gather

In the second of our Summer 2022 community tools trials, CSCCE staff members Adrienne and Katie and several members of our community of practice met to “Escape the Island” in Gather. We actually ended up trying to escape a dungeon labyrinth (read on to find out why!) and explored how best to use these tools at virtual networking events. 

The platform: Gather

Gather is an avatar-based virtual event platform that has been around for a couple of years (we tried it out in a tools trial back in 2020). Every user creates an 8-bit graphic avatar, and you use your computer’s arrow keys to navigate the space. Much like Wonder or Spatial Chat, you join video chats based on your proximity to other avatars. As an event organizer, you can create a virtual event space with rooms for presentations, poster halls, and coffee breaks. You can also use Gather’s different themes to allow your participants to, for example, go for a walk together in a park. 

Unlike logging into some conference platforms, there are added aspects of spatial distribution and personalization: You can pretend you’re actually walking around a venue and try out virtual outfits or bold hair colors.

The escape rooms: Island vs Dungeon

More recently, Gather released an escape room experience called “Escape the Island.” With no customization needed by the organizer, this space is populated with games and puzzles that participants have to solve before they can move on to the next room, much like an in-person escape room. We decided to try this out in our latest tools trial as we wondered whether it would make a good pre-conference icebreaker-type activity, or an online social event after a day of content-driven discussions.

Escape the Island is still in its beta phase, and participation is limited to 6 players. Since we had more than 6 people at our tools trial, we therefore tried out a different Gather escape room: The dungeon labyrinth. This space does allow organizers to add customizations, and with a participation limit of 25 it allows for more of your team or event group to play. 

Tool trial participants trying to find their way out of the dungeon. Image credit: CSCCE

The pros

There’s lots to like about Gather’s interface and how the escape rooms are set up. It’s a relatively easy interface to learn, and generally it just works. We tried out multiple browsers on different operating systems and didn’t encounter any issues. Also, for many in the scientific community there’s a good chance they’ve used Gather before at a virtual conference. And, the platform is free for up to 25 participants. 

The games themselves often require multiple users to collaborate, so it’s a great way for team members to get to know each other better. In general, we decided that it’s a fun activity for people who already know each other, but might not work so well as an icebreaker or mixer. 

The cons

The main flaw with Escape the Island is the participation limit of 6 people, meaning that we couldn’t trial it with our group of 10 (although it’s possible that this will change). We did try it out with the CSCCE staff team, and discovered another potential drawback: it took us about 90 minutes to solve the puzzles and escape, which might be too much of a time investment for some groups. 

In the dungeon room, it was a little tricky to stay together, and because of Gather’s spatially-controlled video chat, that made it hard to communicate with everyone. Adrienne did customize the room so that there were “loudspeakers” in several spots, but this didn’t always mitigate the problem (no spoilers as to why!). And as one participant suggested, instituting a buddy system ahead of time could be a great way to build connection while also keeping everyone together. 

In the newer island escape, participants each grab a walkie talkie as they enter the room, which is a neat solution to this issue.

Top tips

From both this week’s dungeon trial and our staff’s island adventure, here are our five top tips if you’re going to host an escape room for your team or at your next virtual event: 

  1. Play all the games yourself first – as the “gamemaster,” you need to know how to help people that get lost! It’s also helpful to know how to solve the puzzles if you’re pressed for time. 
  2. Test out the game you choose with some friends or colleagues – or if you have to do the work alone, you can use multiple browsers or an extra laptop to simulate multiple users. 
  3. Send out instructions ahead of time – we spent about 15 minutes in Zoom and then another 10 minutes in Gather on orientation and directions.
  4. Consider your audience carefully – is this an activity they would enjoy? Our trial participants suggested it would work well for a smaller group that already knows each other. 
  5. You can customize the dungeon room – adding in spotlight loudspeakers in different areas can help with communication, as well as offering orientation hints for participants.

Coming up next time

Our last trial of our summer 2022 session will take place on Wednesday 10 August at 11am EDT / 3pm UTC. We asked our members what they would like to test, and the majority chose Zoom’s advanced polling features. So, that’s what we’ll be exploring! We hope you’ll join us then.