The origin of escape rooms: from the Etruscans to the bars of Tokyo

When thinking about the origin of escape rooms, usually the reference is Takao Kato who began in 2008 to create group challenges by sowing clues and puzzles in the bars of Tokyo. Although not much is known about him, the motivations that led him to invent this game are clear: "I wondered why interesting things didn’t happen in my life, like they did in books. I thought I could create my own adventure, a story, and then invite people to be a part of it". His passion for novels and manga brought this new format to success first in Asia, winning over Beijing, Shanghai and Singapore. Then, thanks to a friend, Takao win over the United States, opening the first room in San Francisco. The idea began to spread and soon similar experiences arose all over the world. In Europe, the landing dates back to 2011 in Hungary and in 2015, finally, in Turin, Italy. However, the connection between game and escape goes back well before, indeed, it even goes back to the very origin of games.

In his theory about the origin of the Etruscan people, Herodotus describes the birth of the game of dice, who invented them and, above all, why they did it. The story is set in Lydia, an ancient region located in Asia Minor (Anatolia) in the current Turkish provinces of Manisa and Smyrna. At the time of King Atis, there was a severe famine. Initially the people, left without food, resisted but since the situation did not change, the king was forced to find alternative solutions. He decided, therefore, to use the astragals of the sheep as four-sided dice, inventing a game with simple rules: from then on they would alternate a day to play dice, a day to eat and so on. The collective participation in the games managed to distract the population to the point of not feeling the lack of food for days on end and in this way the population managed to survive for another eighteen years. After this time, since the situation continued to remain unchanged, King Atis decided to play his last move. He divided the people in half, then drew lots to see which of the two parts would remain in Lydia and which, instead, would leave in search of another land. Those who remained, headed by the same king Atis, continued to live off the available resources. The son of Atis, Tyrrhenian, went down to the sea with the remaining population and, after having built boats, sailed to the west coast of the Italic peninsula, where he was able to found a new civilization, that of the Etruscans.

Although experts continue to search for evidence attesting to the existence of the famine and genetic links between the Etruscans and the Lydians, as with all the stories of Herodotus, even in this case we can not be sure of its authenticity. In any case, what concerns us, is not so much the historical fact as such, but the role of the game in the whole story. The story has a strongly metaphorical and evocative language and the famine to which it is referred could represent any kind of threat against which, as in the case of a pandemic, man can have very few tools: on one side the research, to discover adequate techniques to defeat the evil; on the other side the wait, in the hope to contain the phenomenon and limit the damages. The invention of the dice game, at first, represents just that: the use of the resources already available to create a new way to pass the time, keeping the body and mind busy in order not to feel hunger and not to be taken by discouragement. A game to escape suffering. It is the epilogue of the story, however, that shows the most interesting side of this invention. The time spent playing is not a time lost. We can imagine, in fact, that eighteen years of playing dice allowed them to develop skills and abilities to find solutions to problems. The same skills that allowed Tyrrhenus and his people to complete a long journey and thus save their culture.

All it takes is a little imagination, then, to believe that escape rooms are not only an invention that is older than people think, but also that, in some ways, they can be considered the first game to be created.