Escape Rooms Proved The Pandemic Killed My Problem-Solving Skills

I’ve been a natural problem-solver my entire life. When you’ve lived with ADHD every day of your life, you become a problem-solver by necessity. This is because it is often you that has created the problem and you that must clean it up. This is why those who live with ADHD leave things to the last minute. We thrive under pressure because our brains won’t let us live any other way. Of the many of my skills the pandemic has eroded over the last two years, rapid problem solving may have deteriorated the most.

This is because I was one of the lucky ones. Over the last two years (and prior to joining Kotaku Australia in October of last year), I didn’t have to do much serious problem solving at all. I was able to hold down a half-steady day job to pay the rent and keep some food on the table. I was able to stay in touch with friends via Zoom and Discord. I even managed my situation well enough that I was able to briefly get home to Brisbane for Christmas 2020.

Because of this, I was able to ride out the pandemic in relative comfort. I don’t intend that to be a brag in any way. I’m very aware that I’ve had an easy time of it over the last two years. Beyond a single mid-winter fortnight where work was so scarce it wouldn’t cover the rent, there was very little problem-solving going on. Instead, I floated downstream, content to let the tide of boredom and despair wash me away. Your brain is a muscle and, like any other, requires regular exercise. Mine wasn’t really getting any, and so, in lieu of use, my problem-solving abilities began to atrophy.

Flash forward to December 28, 2021

I checked out Brisbane’s Fox In A Box escape rooms with friends during the Christmas holidays. It’s a great little setup on Edward St, just down from Queen St Mall, on the first floor of what appears to be an unassuming inner-city office building. Emerging from the elevator a waiting area that resembles a doctor’s office only confirms this. A long, fluorescent-lit hallway carves off from the lobby, adorned with non-descript doors. Behind each door lurks an abrupt change of scenery. Each door leads to an escape room set, each one crafted to resemble one of Fox In A Box’s curated scenarios.

Ours was the Prison Break game. The setup is simple: your group are prisoners, sentenced to 20 years in the slammer. Your goal is to stage a prison break. Separated and locked inside a pair of dimly lit prison cells, we were given an hour to wriggle out of our predicament like grubby little raccoons.

Obviously, I’m not going to tell you exactly HOW to escape the Prison room, because figuring it out is half the fun. You should go, it’s a great time. Fox In A Box did not sponsor this post, nor did they invite me to come by. We went because we wanted to. This a personal endorsement. Check ’em out.

What followed was 60 minutes of my two friends being extremely good at collaborative, communicative puzzle-solving and me shuffling around trying not to get in their way. They found clues, connected dots, uncovered secrets, and all the while I felt like I was several steps behind them.

The room was filled with puzzles designed to take players, in a fairly linear fashion, from jail to freedom. Each new step ratchets the game’s overall complexity. What began as a set of simple solves via lateral thinking became more challenging and intricate with each hurdle overcome. Again and again, the lightbulb would go on for my friends minutes before I would have gotten there. As the clock neared the top of the hour and the end of our session, my friend looked up from scribbling on a piece of scrap paper. She asked “Does anyone know how to do long division?” and I knew that I was finally, conclusively cooked. I’m a writer, not a mathematician. Can’t help you.

It was a little confronting to feel my brain move so sluggishly. An escape room is a situation that leverages my specific superpower. This is a space where I should be not merely useful but hyper-efficient. We’re faced with a huge problem, that can be broken down into a set of smaller, easier-to-solve problems, and there’s a ticking clock for added pressure. I’ve spent my whole life doing this IRL. Why didn’t it feel like the same applied here?

We ultimately failed to escape the room, stymied by the final puzzle’s need for mathematical problem-solving. To be fair, our party was a lawyer and two writers. We never stood a chance.

Back to the gym

We were sent a copy of Brain Trainer for the Nintendo Switch last year and I didn’t think much of it at the time. There’d been a lot of games come out, and it was the end of the year — the site was winding down for the holidays. I figured I could let it go. Now I’m thinking I should probably install it. I think, after two pandemic years with little movement or exercise, my brain needs to get back to the gym as badly as my body. Might as well start there.

The next time I book an escape room, may the old brain be in better condition to contribute. If you’d like a few tips so you don’t make the same mistakes I made, check out this list from our good friends over at Lifehacker Australia.


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