Technology: mini-golf to escape rooms and virtual reality

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New technology, in the form of durable artificial grass, led to a resurgence of mini-golf in the 1960s and 1970s. So, back then, if you were organizing a social outing for a birthday party or social group with 20+ attendees, mini-golf was a popular choice. Modular, mass-produced course components enabled the course owners to inexpensively vary their hole layouts to maintain the interest of regular patrons and adjust difficulty.

Well, forty years on and mini-golf is still with us. But over the last 10 years, we have seen a commercial escape room industry appear, building on interest in movies like “The Cube” and board games like Room-25. A good escape room scenario combines elements of immersive role play, problem solving, team-work and excitement.  Perfect for large group entertainment.

Various “escape rooms in a box” products are available for home-based sessions, reminiscent of the “How to Host a Murder” kits for a mystery-solving dinner party.

Commercial escape room complexes usually have multiple rooms, each offering different puzzles and clues to solve in order to escape the room. There will be themed hosts to get the fun started, fixed props/furnishings to enhance the experience and options for levels of hints. Naturally, there will be breakout refreshment areas for players to enjoy between scenarios and for non-participants to observe a team’s attempts.  So, as with mini-golf, large groups can be accommodated in parallel teams, rules are simple and both scenarios and difficulty level can be chosen to cater for the group.

So what is the technology shift that relates to modern “escape rooms” and other large group immersive games?  

No surprises… virtual reality (VR) !

Rapid improvements in VR products are already affecting arcade-delivered games and this will soon flow down to home gaming consoles. In time, VR products are likely to elevate immersive group games to places we could not have imagined 50 years ago.

Imagine a murder-mystery dinner party, where your fellow guests are “augmented” to appear in Victorian attire in a large, lavish Gothic dining room. Choose a different VR scenario and the same guests  are on a starship helm, ready to solve an intergalactic diplomatic crisis.

I believe that the market for such immersive group games extends wider than the traditional gamer market… they are inclusive social entertainment opportunities that, if done well, can appeal to people that don’t consider themselves as gamers. Imagination levels vary and some people find immersive role-play harder than others… VR will help that.

Finally, I was asked to what extent I thought that VR-augmented games could replace “in-person” immersive games.  There will always be the theatrical amongst us (like me!) that love dressing in real costumes, decorating a room with props and so on. But that is a huge effort, compared to simply loading software into a VR system and popping on goggles.  And once VR-augmented immersive games become common, playing a non-VR game could feel like watching a 12” black-and-white TV in 2018.

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