This week, I volunteered to be locked in a room with 10 other people to play an escape game. It was fascinating and great fun. In the United States Senate this week, they were also playing a locked room game. Senators were trapped in a spite-fest that kept them in rare marathon sessions, through the night. In our attempt to get out of the room, we cooperated, spoke only when necessary, and focused relentlessly on progress. In the Senate, they were doing the opposite. Perhaps they could learn something from our experience.
The 11 of us met to play Escape From the Mysterious Room in downtown San Francisco. A young woman guided us up industrial stairs and through long white hallways that seemed freshly constructed. You may be imagining the start of a grisly local news story—allowed themselves to be led … windowless rooms … turned into lampshades—but it actually felt more like a real estate agent was showing us to the last affordable apartment it the city. And that’s what the room looked like when we entered. It was a rectangular space of about 250 square feet, furnished with a table, some comfortable chairs, a chest, bookshelf, and other bits of furniture.
We would be locked in the room for an hour. The only way we could get out before that would be to solve a series of puzzles and open various locked objects, like a small chest, all of which would lead us (somehow) to a key. The clues to the puzzles and the tools for the physical unlockings were hidden, so when an automated voice intoned “60 minutes,” we started gently demolishing the place—unscrewing the desk chair, flipping over the bookshelf and violating every cushion. It was a reverse Ikea Party.
When we started, we were like a gaggle of freshmen senators all full of purpose and wanting to make a name for ourselves, but with little leadership or organization. Four of us in the group were from Slate—me, my Political Gabfest co-hosts David Plotz and Emily Bazelon, and our executive producer, Andy Bowers. Four were listeners of the show who’d made generous gifts to charity—thank you!—and three were longtime Slate reader Auros Harman and two friends of his. In other words, a group with ties within it, and one which, for the purposes of complex, clock-is-ticking operations, was untested. The goal snapped us all into instant action. Everyone wanted to contribute. Emily immediately melded minds with a man she’d never met, as they sifted through an array of related clues that were brought to them by other mini-teams working in other corners of the room. Two others worked the intricate secret hiding places in a piece of furniture as though it were a performance routine they’d practiced.
Most of the challenges revolved around finding the answers to crossword-like puzzles which would then reveal the next challenge. Merit was highly prized. You could prance around prattling orders or pressing your views on others, but people only listened if you could deliver toward the end goal. At one point, as three of us stood looking at one puzzle on the wall as if it were a rare Van Gogh—tilting our heads and muttering—a fourth (Auros) suggested one simple action that immediately exposed the clue that we hadn’t been able to see. (I don’t want to be more specific and give the game away.) For a moment, he was cheered as a genuine hero. Nine individual clues looked disconnected until one of the strangers drew quick renderings of them, and, after a few moments of experimentation, showed that they arranged into a recognizable pattern.
What rescued this from being like one of those awful cooperation games your HR department forces you to do on company retreats is that this game allowed for ego. You wanted to be the one to solve the little puzzles. You didn’t have to merely cheer others on. And there were no trust falls. It was group action in which each individual person could thrive.
This is what made me think of the Senate, an institution of collective action with a membership formed on the basis of personal ambition. But the locked-room game is not exactly a model for that body in its current state. Our senators have already tried to lock themselves in a situation that requires them to be productive. It was called sequestration. It was essentially an attempt to box the members of Congress into a corner, in order to force them to work toward a goal they all wanted to achieve. Instead, sequestration failed, because after a faint-hearted effort, everyone decided they didn’t like the stupid game and that it was the other guy’s fault for wanting to play in the first place.
In reacquainting themselves with the attributes required for progress, lawmakers will have to start slowly and that’s where the locked-room game could be useful. What if Democrats and Republicans were broken into little bipartisan teams and forced to play our game? The urgency of the task would force them to put away their speeches and focus on progress and accomplishments. After working this atrophied muscle for an hour they might develop a fondness for achievement-through-collective-action and try it outside the room. Or, by being forced to trust and rely on each other, they might discover hidden talents in themselves and in each other that could be applied to working on legislation. If nothing else, the activity would at least force them to spend time together outside of the hallways where they pass each other with only a nod. This is something they used to do before partisanship and fundraising trips kept them from attending the same social functions in Washington. And it would push them into more useful contact than a tea party or a dinner would—no time wasted with meaningless chit chat.
The locked-room game is also an effective identifier of the weak and the lame. Those who try to take control without earning it can be easily identified. Those who mint bad ideas on the half-minute can be offered cabinet posts. The game also helps identify organizational flaws. We were enthusiastic and focused but could have used a strong leader at times to keep us from duplicating work. We should have chosen such a leader at the outset. The game, like public policy, teaches you that answering questions is not the only key to success. You must make sure you’re answering the right questions. Activity can make you feel like you’re making progress, but it can also be a trap.gov.
In the end, our bunch didn’t get to the key. We came very close. We chewed through the next-to-last challenge quickly, shouting out the answers and racing to the next one, knowing we were inches away. It was a frantic burst of last minute activity Congress only approaches when a holiday break is near and everyone wants to get out of town. But unlike Congress, which often heads into the holidays in a fit of acrimony, we all emerged beaming and energized. Perhaps when the next vacation approaches, members of Congress could go on this particular field trip.