"Escape room" trend reaches Ann Arbor with civic engagement twist

The owners of a new Pittsfield Township "escape room" hope their venture not only entertains visitors but also gets them exploring their own communities after they've puzzled their way out.
Guests at Decode Detroit pay for the challenge of being "locked" in a room with the "adolescent artificial intelligence" Minerva, which they must then outwit in order to "escape." Escape rooms have been popular in major cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago for several years now and have more recently made their way to Detroit. They've caught on for both entertainment and employee team-building purposes.
With his parents' help, Patton Doyle founded Decode Detroit earlier this year and opened its first location last month. The 25-year-old Ann Arbor native spent the last several years studying transportation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. That's where he and his roommate developed the technological thriller storyline that drives Decode Detroit.
Doyle and his team started scouting locations last spring. Doyle settled on launching in the Detroit area in part because of the Regional Transit Authority of Southeast Michigan's (RTA) proposed regional transit master plan, which Doyle hopes will yield new job opportunities in his field if voters approve it next week.
But as he got familiar with Detroit, he saw another opportunity to help guide people through its disconnected developments.
"The goal in the short term was to open this escape room and see if we could make a go of it," Doyle says. "Then we started thinking about how you could use this same sort of puzzle, goal-oriented story, or adventure to do some real good with it."
The idea is for players to continue the game after "escaping" by visiting stations around Ann Arbor for a sort of scavenger hunt of additional puzzles that will lead them to the game's final conclusion.
Details for this part of the plan are still being worked out, but Doyle envisions partnering with local businesses as a means of cross-promotion. He hopes that approach will benefit all parties and be fun for players as they learn more about their community.
Other cities could eventually be included in the scavenger hunt beyond the walls of Decode Detroit. While plans to buy or lease space in Detroit have temporarily stalled, a second Detroit location is still being pursued as well.

Eric Gallippo is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.

Photos courtesy of Decode Detroit.
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