Seriously escaping: designing and building an escape room for the Dutch Police

The Escape Room project for the Dutch Police was  to create a fun, but educational environment to test law and procedural knowledge with cops. Using the characteristic attributes of an escape room; time pressure, solving puzzles and finding clues to unlock keys an unknown, exciting and interactive environment was created. The cops had to find their way to uncover a weed plantation robbery.

Six students in the Minor Serious Gaming worked on this assignment by research, concept, design and build of, eventually, a large escape room on a facility in Apeldoorn.
It was a big challenge especially the real-life implementation in the months December and January.

The project was finished by handing over “keys” to the Police and additional documentation. The room will be tested the next months to a broad group of cops. The results will show if the pre-project assumptions on the use of this innovation educational method will help the awareness of cops in their practical work.

This article will tell the process in the project and the Minor, specifics in the “serious” and the “gaming” part of research etc. It also gives some do and don’t on creating a large project like this.

We thank Arno Musch from the Dutch Police for giving the assignment and trust in the result. And people behind The Great Escape (Johan Post and his coworkers) for giving assistance in the project as an outside consultant. Finally, the six students who worked very hard skills they never knew they had to use (and were not mentioned in the minor prospectusJ )

The project Building an Escape room for the Dutch Police was part of the minorSerious Gaming. It is a choice for ICT-students of the University of Applied Sciences Windesheim in Zwolle, the Netherlands. It is a 20-week program (one semester) which is chosen by our Software Engineering (SE) and Business IT Management (BIM) students and a lot of artists from other institutes like Cibap and Deltion. We also attract students from other fields like healthcare, journalism, electronics, retail management etc.

During a semester, we have around 6 – 8 assignments. The minor is run by Teun Lucassen and myself. Our job is to coach the students, see to quality and delivery of results to the end of the period. We call the minor 038games and students run their projects as a game-studio. 038games is also a certified learn & stage company.

During the minor the students work on real problems and questions from organizations in public services, healthcare but also commercial organizations. The students work on this project almost fulltime. They start from scratch, research the assignment, do the design, think of gameplay, build the game and work on technical and functional documentation (the Game Design Document). Most of the projects result in mobile games, Virtual and Augmented Reality.

But because we attract way more students outside the software engineering and art field I was looking for some other types of assignments. In 2016 I spoke to a HR lady from the FIOD, a Dutch governmental agency which finds it difficult to attract junior ICT-staff. So, I suggested: let’s build an Escape Room for this. The client didn’t become the FIOD but our trusted partner the Dutch National Police.

Why an Escape room as a serious educational environment?
Escape rooms are hot and happening. It’s fun for a large group of customers, it can be thematic. Participants must work as a team and are under time pressure to finish successful within one hour and set a record. They have must solve puzzles and find their way through the rooms.
The most of them use videotaping. This came from the time that participants took material with them to break through the locks quicker. Mostly this videotaping is used as a fun part at the end of the session to look back at the achievements. Sound and sometimes smell play a part to make the room a complete experience[1].

When you use all those attributes, it is strange that this is seldom used and seen as a great educational tool. And it doesn’t require great software engineering skills. What it did require we came to find out during the project!

The assignment
The Dutch Police is the largest employer in the Netherlands. With more than 55.000 cops on the streets they resemble an interesting education partner for Windesheim. Cops are trained on a regular basis. To learn to handle (new) weapons, cars, traffic control, physical condition and their knowledge of the law and procedures to amply this in daily situations. The Police has six training facilities spread over the Netherlands. Our client was the Human Resource department responsible for the training programs and – facilities. In the person of Arno Musch.

One of the problems is to know if the knowledge of a cop is up-to-date. Not every cop works in the same type of environment. Some work in cities, others in more agricultural environments. (Some work on islands like Curacao). Not every cop has experienced shootings, arrests, confiscation of weapons, drug dealing, entering potential dangerous locations with bombs etc. etc. But there are clear laws and procedures to these.  To test if cops’ knowledge of these laws and procedures to apply them is difficult to measure. The assignment for the escape room is to create a setting where cops are aware of their knowledge and the lack of them. So being in the escape room and facing a set of situations must be a wakeup call.

For every project the client has the responsibility to provide the team with sufficient information during the project. The Police facilitated psychologists, educational experts and expert on law and procedures. For the escape room experience and background information we were happy to have the assistance of The Great Escape, an experienced escape room designer and organizer with several rooms based in Zwolle.

The team and their skills
Let’s introduce the client: Arno Musch from the Dutch Police. Arno is an experience educational advisor and trainer. He had been on the streets and undercover and knows a lot of details usable in this project. He also drove everyone to the real implementation of the designs. A decision he sometimes had regrettedJ

Bertrand Weegenaar (the author of this article) is a lecturer at Windesheim. His job is to coach the team, participate in the demo’s, communicate with the client and support the team to reach its goals. The consists of delivering a serious game, provide documentation at the end of the project and provide evidence during an assessment that they worked on HBO-I competences.

Johan Post is co-founder of The Great Escape in Zwolle and worked as an advisor on the design, planning and implementing of the actual room in Apeldoorn.

The team was formed by Marten (student Electro from University of Applied Science Saxion), Rosanne (student Communication & Multimedia Design (CMD) from University of Applied Science Arnhem-Nijmegen), Niels-Peeter (MBO (intermediate vocational education) -student Cibap Graphical Design), Dennis (Windesheim student Small Business Retail Management), Darryn (Windesheim ICT student software engineering) and Ariane (Windesheim student Social Works). A very multidiscipline team.

Rosanne’s assignment, a bachelor thesis research was to research the educational value of serious gaming and an escape room. It was her final bachelor part. (She finally finished her study with an 8 on this thesis). The research paper was part of the documentation for the Police as foundation for this project. (see also Valorization)

The serious part
For every assignment in Serious Gaming the client facilitated staff to inform our students. They mostly do interviews, work that out in a report, do background research etc. The Police added besides this HR staff to co-design the puzzles, apply questions and tests and do the play testing. Students worked through the information used in (re)training cops:  Het politievak inzichtelijk[2]

The complex part in this process is to design challenging puzzles which represents viable tests. These puzzles had to be designed and tested. In an early stage the theme of the escape room was decided which gave a “setting” for the puzzles. Designing and testing the puzzles was an iterative process. They had to be correct for the content, be challenging.

In this process a factor was not if the puzzles where easy or difficult to implement. The picture puzzles almost went straight from the team location in Zwolle to Apeldoorn. The doorbell puzzles resulted in a frustrating electro technical challenge.
For the sake of the future players I will not elaborate on the difficult puzzles and background law, procedures etc. This will give away too much information.

Added to the team in the final weeks where students from Cibap to co-design rooms and create some elements of puzzles. One example is the wood puzzle where two players must recover a key. See the design, video of the making process and final picture of the implementation.

From design to implementation: description of the alley puzzle, building and with all the decorations.


The gaming part
Concepting, designing and building a game is a process which takes several steps. First it’s an iterative process together with the customer. The research on escape rooms was visiting some of them and looking behind the scene with the help of the people from the Great Escape.
When the setting and theme is found, creating first concepts and puzzles was the way to go. Rosanne added paper prototyping to the techniques. With the help of paper, pencils, glue and scissors the room was designed and puzzles created.
The theme for the room was a weed room. The cops would get a call that this weed plantation was ripped. The potential thieves where still in the neighborhood of the location. The task of the cops was to secure the location and find as much evidence as possible.

An important moment in October was when a possible space in Apeldoorn was found on the old-Zwitsal factory location. A building with a large space of more than 1.000 square meters was available. It was empty, without power and other facilities. But it was a space near the Police Academy.
So, when the decision was made that this would be the space were the escape room could materialize the designs got real.
Another important step was to test all the puzzles. They had to be fun, but also educational and related to the police stuff. This is where the magic “serious” and “gaming” happens.
During October and November, the preparations for the implementation started. A budget was calculated and resources where found to help build the puzzles. An inventory was made of all the stuff which had the be build and bought. The team became friends with the close by second hand store.

The period December and January was hard labor for the team and the coaches. It was cold and the students where skills electricians and builders. Walls were build, powerlines were drawn, soundtracks made, a control room with working lights, video and audio was done. And the cold was survived. From one large area one alley, six different rooms where made separated by walls and hidden entrances. Walls where painted and decorated. Rooms were styled in their specific theme. And twelve puzzles were implemented.

Small and large victories were celebrated.

To be honest, we had our dough’s on reaching the goal to finish the project in time with enough quality that the testing by real teams of cops could start.

But finally, on February the 8th the opening of the escape room was done by Oscar Dros, chief of the Dutch Police in East-Netherlands. In his speech, he empathizes the importance of these type of innovational ways of education and training.

After delivering the room, handover the documentation, doing the final presentation, the team was almost finished. The hard work was done, the room was available for testing with players. The Police has done some internal request for players and a big list started to build.
Press has gotten hold on the story. We had a story with the local newspaper De Stentor. A reporter visited the location and made a vlog.

After this BNR (Business News Radio) got hold on the story and send a radio reporter. And then EenVandaag, the largest television newsmagazine of the Netherlands requested to make an exclusive item. Filming was done at Cibap with the students and on the location with a team of cops and Arno Musch. As a teaser EenVandaag did a radio-interview with me and Elleke, a college of Arno.

Do and don’ts

This paragraph gives some tips on what and what not to do.
– these types of projects are both innovative from an educational point of view but also for the organization which will be using it. Analyzing the stakeholders and keeping them informed is important;
– keep track of all the changes in documentation. We encountered some differences in the Game Design Documentation and the finalized room. It took some effort to adjust that;
– celebrate milestones. This keeps the team happy. And does a lot with the client relationship;
– inform. Demo’s (like in Scrum Demo’s) are a great way to do that. These meetings can be open for guests;
– plan and replan. We underestimate the transition from designing to real life implementing. In the end we need some handy hand. Doing odd jobs is not a general student skill;
– use partners. For almost every innovative project: someone done it before. Or thought about it. Find experts who can help you. The people from The Great Escape were a very helpful resource in both the research and building phase.

– don’t do this in the winter. Without power and heath, it was more then challenging;
– don’t do this without a way to extend the time on the project. Using Scrum, you would think, what are you talking about. Functionality versus time. But when you start the real-life implementation (building) there is hardly room to don’t do this or that. So we had consent from some students to work two weeks longer than planned. They got our trust by giving a positive grade before the finished the work. Thanks for that!

Valorization: the research on reaching the goals and ambitions
Starting in February the testing of the Escape Room started. This process is done to test all the puzzles with real players. Another long-term objective is to see of this way of being aware of all the underlying laws and procedures is picked up better by playing an escape room then to do the standard paper test. A test plan will be made by researchers to see If the assumptions underlying this project hold.

The room had had some revision. Some props like the getaway car with bomb is much more real now (it has a good timer and smoke effect) and some puzzles are taken out. They were too difficult or unclear.
From March till May around 150 cops will visit the escape room. A waiting list of 300 players (count March) shows the interest of the organization.

The future of this Escape room
Now (May 2018) this is unclear. The room will probably be in a facility on the premises of the Police Academy in Apeldoorn. If the results of the valorization are positive different rooms may be designed on different theme’s.
For the moment, 038games (Windesheim and Cibap), the Dutch Police and The Great Escape had a great learning experience. We have created the largest escape room in the Netherlands for the largest employer. We have experience in using serious gaming to help the organization in their innovative education and HR-learning strategy.
We will start new project, digital and not, every half year with fresh students. With an ICT background or not.

More information on or contact Bertrand Weegenaar,, +31-(0)652585555

[1] More information online or in the book Escape the game

[2] Studie-editie deel 1 & 2 Mr.Joseph Molenaar MA, Aart Sterk Achtste, herziene druk 2011 (Stapel & De Koning)

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