How we remember histories—and the people whose actions shaped the course of history—also shapes our futures: Together, we constructed an escape room to “escape” this erasure. To put it another way, we used space / form / material / play to escape this tendency to escapism. In doing so, students found ways to call attention to and critique the reductive flattening of King’s legacy while holding his many complexities against and with one another.
The intent was to provoke conversations around these themes through the act of designing and as an effect of the experience of that design: How could the act of imagining, constructing, and realizing the room and the puzzles within it initiate and sustain conversations that wouldn’t otherwise happen? How can the act of playing the room initiate an engagement with the same conversations—is it still a dialogue? Is it some other kind of exchange? An act of learning or uncovering? An introduction?
To start, we played an escape room together nearby in Santa Clarita. Back at CalArts, we reflected on the the ways in which King is remembered and forgotten; discussed the ways in which escape rooms function to conceal and reveal; and examined how we might define the “consequence” of escape and entrapment in the game we would build together. In two days, students rapidly transferred the substance of these conversations into prototyped puzzles; tested them; and improved upon them. Our conversations about formal choices, mechanisms for delivering clues, sequencing the puzzles, and spatial elements throughout the room are where much of the dialogue about what we understood or questioned about the theme surfaced. Students took care to embed meaning into this room: The logics of each puzzle and the overarching links between them; the strategies for encoding each clue; the metaphors associated with the materials they chose. Each of these design decisions helped convey what they had learned about King through the game itself.
The students who made this puzzle (Austin, Lily, Naveen) drew attention to the ways in which King’s image and words are often misused—even with the blessing of his estate—in service of capitalism in spite of his contrary stance on capitalism during his life. In 2018, Dodge Ram used clips of King’s voice from a 1968 delivery of his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon in a Superbowl ad. The ad cherrypicks lines from King’s sermon to compose a narrative to, put simply, sell trucks: in the same exact sermon, he condemns advertisers, speaks to our attempts to buy cars beyond our means, and comments on advertisers’ ability to capitalize on people’s egos and insecurities and drive a dangerous cycle of competitive consumption. The installation they constructed held these contradictions in its form and interactions. The ad played on a loop, projected onto a screen on a prominent wall.
On the projector, players found a card with five riddles and instructions to “decode the video” by completing each riddle. Players watched the ad intently, found each clue, and spelled out the word “switch.” On the wall nearby, they quickly found and flipped the button labeled “switch.” The projector screen withdrew into the ceiling and they found a hidden text behind the screen: The entirety of King’s sermon appeared containing highlighted phrases that had been deliberately selected to compose the Dodge ad and the anti-capitalist phrases that categorically contradict it. In doing so, they drew into heightened contrast the absurdity of using King’s voice in this way.
In the final line of the printed sermon, players found instructions to “remove the last sheet of the sermon for the next clue.” Upon doing so, they found a message on the back that matched the style of a projection on the opposite wall. The projection, however, was too blurry to read; and both messages contained dismembered letterforms. Both were too segmented to decipher. In order to complete the text, players had to bring the text into focus by physically drawing the sheet of paper both close enough to the projector lens and aligned with the projected letterforms that the phrase could appear complete and precise (photo by Austin Prouty).
In the last puzzle, the student (Aren) wanted to remind players that the causes for which King fought—racial equity, justice, and so on—are not yet won, in spite of the discourse around post-raciality and the idea that we’ve “moved past” racism since King’s assassination. To do so, he built a matching puzzle. Each piece paired two halves of a letter and two images figures from past and present: for example, Muhammad Ali with his Black Power fist raised next to Serena Williams in the same pose.