The National Archives Museum is among the most visited sites in the nation’s capital. On one spring evening, however, a group of Montgomery College students did their best to keep attendees from leaving one of the rooms in the Boeing Learning Center. In all, 26 people participated in a voting rights themed “escape room,” designed to be both educational and fun, all part of a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which prohibits the states and the federal government from denying the right to vote to citizens of the United States on the basis of sex. The students from MC’s Gaming and Simulation Program designed and created escape games that explore voting rights, while challenging attendees to solve mysteries and puzzles.
“This is a project they are doing for the class, which is a board game design class or a non-digital game design class,” said MC Professor Deborah Solomon. It was the second of three game projects they worked on throughout the semester, and it took students a month to create.
“They are a series of puzzles to solve. So, each one is set up as a story, a scenario,” said Amber Kraft, education specialist at the Archives.
Kraft said the ‘escape room–inspired’ workshop—as she describes it because participants are not physically locked in—is just one of the many education and public programs the museum is presenting in celebration of the centennial of the 19th Amendment, and a new exhibit, Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote.
I was really impressed by the creativity and skill of our game masters today, and loved the way they incorporated history and fun into the event
Participants had an introductory briefing before breaking off into teams of six or seven. Each team went into one of four rooms and learned about their “mission” from the students, all playing a role. The teams had approximately 45 minutes to solve each puzzle, and some got to rotate through more than one room. Scenarios varied: one focused on the Greensboro Four sit-ins in North Carolina—a series of nonviolent protests in 1960 aimed at desegregating lunch counters—, another was inspired by a lawyer who worked for President Woodrow Wilson during the time leading up to the 19th Amendment’s ratification.
“He [the lawyer] was deeply involved in the drafting of the 19th amendment. In the game, the lawyer, regrettably, is taken out of the equation and it is up to the players to find the pieces of his writings to deliver to President Wilson,” said Alex Eggleton, a first-year student at MC, who plays the attorney character in the scenario. “He left it in fragments for them to piece together.”
Solomon said students believed, at first, that it would be easy to create the game. “[However] it’s a logical challenge. They have to take a person step-by-step through a storyline while figuring out what happened and what the end result is. And, they are still asked to solve puzzles the whole time… puzzles built on each other. Logically, it’s very complex for the students to put together,” she said.
The students’ hard work paid off as participants immersed themselves in the experience. “This was a fantastic experience,” said Cari Jeffries, a participant who routinely attends escape room games at the Archives. “I was really impressed by the creativity and skill of our game masters today, and loved the way they incorporated history and fun into the event.”
The materials they used as clues all belong to the National Archives or to the Smithsonian Institution. Eggleton said all of their material was almost exclusively from the Archives’ website, but also worked with different images and document sources. “I think the one I most directly worked with was an impressive photo of the Women’s March, and it’s just been kind of illuminating for me,” he said. “There is a lot of suffering that went for suffrage.”