At the end of 2019 we launched the Center for an Informed Public (CIP), a university-wide center to study misinformation and translate research into policy, technology design, curriculum development, and public engagement. The University of Washington is one of five recipients of start-up funding from the Knight Foundation. One of our focus areas is information (and media) literacy and exploring the role of public libraries in helping the public become better equipped in identifying and resisting mis- and disinformation.

As CIP co-founder Chris Coward dug into the literature on information literacy and misinformation, the number of questions grew. Overall, it didn’t appear that research on how misinformation flows and individuals come to believe false information was making its way into the information literacy field (with notable exceptions of course of individuals who are making significant contributions). In large part, this has to do with information literacy’s rationalist orientation and focus on teaching skills to make sound information choices. While undoubtedly important, this orientation overlooks the affective dimensions of misinformation – the ways in which misinformation triggers emotional and psychological responses to achieve its goals.

Chris and colleagues at the Technology & Social Change Group decided to learn more and turned to librarians, information professionals on the front lines of helping people meet their information needs. We interviewed 12 librarians and gathered 22 librarians for an in-person workshop (right before COVID-19) and really deepened our understanding. We heard the need for programs that are respectful, especially as misinformation has become a political and polarizing topic. No-one wants to be told they lack the ability to make judgements for themselves and librarians risk alienating patrons if they come across as preachy or challenging their beliefs. We also heard the need for programs that address misinformation indirectly, perhaps not even using the word in the title or description. Just the mention of misinformation (or fake news) can have the effect of deterring people from joining a program. This was summed up nicely by one librarian who said, “you have to hide the vegetables.” And we heard a plea for more engaging programs. The librarians mentioned that “instructional” training programs, checklists, and other top-down methods would not be very effective. For more information, see The role of libraries in misinformation programming: A research agenda.

While contemplating the research and what we learned from our interviews Chris happened across an article about escape rooms catching on in libraries and thought, perhaps this could be a powerful mechanism for learning about misinformation that ticked the above boxes of something that could be engaging, respectful, indirect, peer-based while focusing on the affective aspects of misinformation. Moreover, since escape rooms are essentially a series of puzzles, they are well suited to incorporating the sorts of deceptive technologies and tactics commonly used to spread misinformation.

At this point Chris turned to Dr. Jin Ha Lee, director of the GAMER Research Group, who challenged a class she was teaching at the time to run with the idea. As we grew more excited about the concept we reached out to Lindsay Morse, co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of Puzzle Break, a Seattle-based escape room company that has the distinction of being the first escape room in the U.S. Lindsay’s interests were piqued (she has occasionally taught in the UW Classics department where she earned her Ph.D.) and we got to work with a little seed funding on our first prototype.