This grain marks the end of the Unit 4: Designing puzzles of STEAMER E-learning module. In the previous grains, we have been over the different types of puzzles and how to organise them into structured sequences. We gave you tools and tips to design your puzzles, as well as ways to adapt them, in order to be inclusive of students with learning disorders. This last lesson will approach a topic that we did not yet analyse but which is just as important for your escape rooms to function: hints.
The words ‘hint’ and ‘clue’ are often used interchangeably, as synonyms, even though their significance differs slightly. For the purpose of this lesson, we will define hints as ‘an indirect or general suggestion for how to do or solve something’ (Merriem Webster, 2020a). Clues, however, are defined as such ‘a piece of evidence that leads one toward the solution of a problem’ (Merriem Webster, 2020b). Hints are given by the game-master. They do not pre-exist the game. Clues, on the other side, do.
Proceeding with the current lesson, first we will discuss the role of the game master / educator. Second, we will examine the different types of hints and how to deliver them.
Rules on hints are highly variable between different facilities around the globe. Generally, the quantity of hints decreases as the difficulty rises.
Role of the Game Master/ Educator
In professional facilities, game masters are responsible for overseeing the room (e.g. check that every puzzle function as needed), welcoming participants, explaining the rules, ensuring a fair experience, and delivering hints. They also monitor the room to avoid damages and provide help in case of emergencies (Nicholson, 2015).
In Nicholson’s (2015) words: “The best teachers allow students to engage with problems, explore, learn, and intervene only when it is needed to avoid students being overly frustrated.” Being a good game master is similar to being a good teacher. You should understand when to give hints, that are, neither too early in the solving process, neither too late. You should give your students time for reflection.
Within the ER designer’s job description (which in our context will often be the game master) also lies the creation of hints. Of course, you can improvise on the spot if your students are facing difficulties. However, forethought is always a good idea. First of all, having a list of hints prepared will help you to avoid unreadiness and blanking while the game is being played. Secondly, it will also help you monitor the difficulty of the hints that you deliver (as well as the difficulty the puzzles). On the spot, without preparation, you might be tempted to give hints which will turn out to be too easy, or vice versa.
Therefore, whether you act as the game master yourself or delegate the task to a colleague, we would advise you to create a list. To do so, you should first identify details in your puzzles that could cause difficulties (e.g. a maths problem within your puzzle that your students usually struggle to solve). Second, create two hints per identified difficult point: one easy to decipher, if you notice that your students are stuck and need quick help, and one more difficult to interpret, if you know they are on the verge of solving the puzzle.
That being said, let’s discover the different forms that hints can take.
Types of hints
To deliver hints, game masters have two possibilities: in person or via the use of modern technologies. The first possibility is the less common: Nicholson (2015) noticed it in only 16% of the 175 surveyed escape rooms. Game masters can be within the room with the participants or be summoned by a button. In the case of an educative escape room, it is more practical for the game master to stay in the room.
In the second possibility, they can use an intercom, a phone, various screens and communication techniques (emails, direct chats, video recorded messages, etc.), or walkie-talkies (Wiemker et al., 2015). Less costly, one can also imagine a setting where hints would be delivered on paper, slipped under the door, or even via a letter box.
In any case, make sure to adapt the delivery method to the scenario and décor of your Escape Room. Avoid using smartphones into an 1800s environment, and paper within a futuristic setting.
Now that we have been over ways to deliver hints, let’s dive into rules and numbers.
Common delivery guidelines
Guidelines on deliveries differ depending on the facility. Therefore, we will give you a list of possibilities, rather than clear instructions. This list is based on the one made by Wiemker et al. (2015).
- First, unlimited hints. You will give hints whenever students request them. This is the easiest solution for the players and the most common according to Nicholson (2015), as it is used in 42% of surveyed facilities.
- Set a limit of hints to be displayed. Players will have to choose at which moment they want their hints.
- Use hints as a gift when solving puzzles. For this possibility, we can imagine hints taking the form of coins. Whenever puzzles are too hard, players could discard a coin in exchange for a hint.
- Trade hints against time penalty. For example, you could reduce 1 minute from the playing time for each given hint.
- Give hints whenever you deem it necessary. In this possibility, it is not the players who ask, but you who give them, when you consider the time is right and hints necessary for players to progress. This option is used by 23% of professional facilities in Nicholson’s survey (2015).
- Automatically timed hints. They are given regularly, such as every 15 minutes (Nicholson, 2015).
- No hint. This policy is visible in only 3% of surveyed facilities. In the context of an educative escape room, we do not advise to use it, as it could create frustration and concession.
Alternatively, you could also consider mixing two solutions: why not restrain access to hints in the first 20 minutes, then offer as many hints as players wish in the 40 minutes remaining? You could also mix the time penalty rule with gifts, to offer a solution whenever the quota of hints has been used.
In the end, no solution is better than another. We advise you to try several ones and decide – once again – according to the students’ age and wanted level of difficulty, which solution fits the best.
This grain marks the end of our Unit 4: Designing puzzles. Stay with us for Unit5: Designing the equipment and the atmosphere, where you will learn everything there is to know about props, both physical and digital, and music, to set the ambience of your Escape Room perfectly.