- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. (AP) - After 45 minutes locked in together, Team Pens to Lens knows time is running out. The six young adults from Champaign agree: they need help.

Anne Lukeman waves to a ceiling-mounted camera and says, “Hint! Hint!” A single line of text appears on a screen on the far wall, just below the ticking timer.

The group springs into action, and nine minutes later, they’ve unlocked the door to their confines.

“What did you think?” asks Rebecca Henderson.

“That was really fun,” says A.J. Christensen.

The team has just completed “The Office,” one of five puzzle rooms at Escape Bloomington. The business, an offshoot of SmartPath Education Services, uses a separate space at 2203 E. Empire St. as a laboratory for team-building and play alike.

Henderson, a co-owner, said the K-12 educational publisher opened Escape Bloomington in October because “training and team-building are big priorities for us.” It’s been busy since: weekdays with corporate clients and weekends with thrill-seekers and amateur logicians.

In each scenario, a small group of players - four to 10 - is locked in a room for an hour and attempts to solve riddles that will lead to their freedom. Groups can choose the “fear factor” and difficulty of their scenario, and each take place in a realistic environment.

“The Office,” for instance, appears to be just that: A desk, two chairs, a bookcase and simple floor and wall furnishings.

Here, however, anything could be a clue. As soon as they enter, the group begins taking down wall hangings, flipping over rugs and leafing through books to find the clues hidden on or in them. It’s up to them to figure out which are real and which are red herrings.

The group receives three hints to use when they get stuck putting together the number and letter combinations to several locks, each of which opens a box containing further clues.

“It’s all brain power, and the more closely you work together, the better chance you have of escaping,” Henderson told the team.

Laura Jennings-Mitchell, clinical director at ABC Counseling and Family Services in Normal, said “The Office” helped bring her team of five together when they visited it in December.

“I wanted the opportunity to take them out and work together but still have a fun aspect to it,” Jennings-Mitchell said. “We’ve been back (once) since. … ABC Counseling has offices throughout Central Illinois and the plan is to do a team-building activity there for all six of our offices.”

In addition to their educational value, puzzle rooms have caught on as a gaming trend: The Washington Post, CNBC and Gizmodo have published stories about their emergence over the last 18 months.

Team Pens to Lens, a group of friends and gamers, traveled to Escape Bloomington because local puzzle rooms are hard to find, Christensen said. “The Office” was the first puzzle room for him and teammate Thomas Nicol.

“I like playing escape games on tablet, but being in person is very different,” Nicol said. “(On tablet) if you can click on something, you know it works. Here the answer could be anywhere.”

Henderson said the business rotates rooms to encourage even frequent visitors to return. Nicol said Team Pens to Lens probably will come back.

“There are still a lot of challenges left to do,” Christensen said.

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Source: The (Bloomington) Pantagraph, https://bit.ly/1AovEu0

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Information from: The Pantagraph, https://www.pantagraph.com

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