“When you work here, you join a family.” These are the words that were spoken to me during my integration day for a job in a paper mill, at the age of 19. Many will have heard similar statements at some point in their journey into gainful employment. This lively speech marked for me the culmination of this particular work. Every day I spent there was an intolerable chore. I left at the first polite opportunity where the family similarities ended.
Most of us have worked a job like this, but things could change. Recent studies suggest that 69 percent of workers have not favored a return to traditional work since the pandemic and a growing number around the world are calling for better working conditions. On the other side of this seesaw is the government, which recently recommended that people “take more hours” or find “a better paid job” to cope with the soaring cost of living. This creates a dilemma for those who feel they must choose between devoting more of their lives to shark-eyed bosses with messiah complexes and pursuing the healthier work-life balance they have known for the pandemic.
To try to figure this out for myself, I traveled to Bristol transformed Festival, an annual weekend socialist event that normally consists of lectures and workshops, but now experiments with LARPing – in the form of a socialist escape room called The line of fire.
“The game brings together the imbalanced power dynamic between workers and their bosses that exists in many companies,” says Beth Gormley, organizer of the Bristol Transformed Festival. “Workers should have more autonomy over their working conditions and we hope people can learn the tools to start organizing and tackling inequality within their own workplace.”
Justin Stathers, the organizer of today’s game, is a seasoned escape room creator. “We’ve all had times where employers have tried to be your friend but aren’t sincere and it’s really about trying to get the best out of you but hidden under a layer of smiles and emojis of thumbs up,” he said. “The idea is that a company’s employees are secretly spied on by a boss from a secret lair – bossware and employer intrusion into employees’ privacy is becoming a growing problem and that’s something something we wanted to exploit.”
The game takes place in the back room of a nightclub furnished with various office detritus, including water cooler bottles, small plastic office items, and passive-aggressive laminated notes. A large whiteboard rests against one of the walls, chains attached to it with padlocks holding it in place. Myself and five strangers stand nervously, probably wondering if we’ve dressed appropriately for our first day on the job.
“Hi, I’m Jack from HR, welcome aboard, hi, hi, yeah great to see you, we met at your initiation, loved your LinkedIn profile, great, yeah,” rumbles Stathers, now in character and with a voice like Bob Mortimer train guy. He reaches out for a firm, professional handshake: “Welcome to the new state-of-the-art break room, while you are here the doors will be locked to prevent you from distracting, associating or forming relationships with colleagues and unionize. ”
Stathers then tells us, in a low voice, that a colleague has uncovered misdeeds from upper management and it’s our job to find the clues that will come together to uncover their misdeeds. Before the game starts, we are reminded that all of our bathroom breaks will be timed and that we only have 30 minutes to get the job done.
I have never done an escape room. Ironically, they’ve always struck me as the kind of organized fun you’d do for a fun day at the office, with ax throwing, raft building, and whatever else might pass for an activity you could do on the road. Ferdinand’s Island. However, despite my innate dislike, my team needs me and I’m not going to let them down.
We start out wandering aimlessly, clearly not demonstrating the level of teamwork that we said we were proud of during the job interview. Royalty-free background music blares, only adding to our confusion.
Nothing jumps out at us; we need what can only be described in business parlance as “a solution tailored to our unique set of business objectives”. But then things fall into place: A colleague of mine reviewed a desk fan with color-coded buttons. He unexpectedly pulls out a code from the fan and tries it on a locked suitcase which duly opens. We are in business.
Others are now peering under tables and behind chairs, grabbing handy fruit in the form of plastic pizza pieces, the rest of which are tossed into a take-out box on a side table. Others examine posters on the wall and read handwritten notes that have been conveniently left everywhere.
Maybe it’s my lack of relevant experience, but I’m absolutely no help. I have to take a helicopter view and find a unique set of skills that I can bring to this team. That’s when I notice one essential thing that this break room is missing: a motivational poster.
I know what I must do. I need to put on a record to see who’s dancing, I need to channel my inner Alan Sugar, I need to use phrases like “hive mind”, “idea shower” and “strategic staircase as much as possible – I need to rally the troops. The speech is an adrenaline-charged blur. I’m sure I said the words “island” and “synergy” and wove my hands into a trellis – the international sign language term for teamwork – the rest, who knows?
Anyway, it seems to work. A colleague finds another code in a calendar, unlocking a briefcase containing a magnet. We use it to pull a key out of a water cooler, which then unlocks another padlock on the whiteboard. Slices of pizza – not so graciously donated by upper management – are reassembled to reveal yet another cryptic code. We find another code on a desk phone. I can imagine a member of middle management describing this as being in the sphere of ideas. Finally, all the locks are cracked and the whiteboard collapses to reveal a secret passage.
We crawl cautiously, single file, to a secret lair, the music kicking up a notch as we sink into the small space. A large computer, which somehow still works on Windows 7, sits on a desk with a confused keyboard in front of it. The computer asks us for a password. I feel a final crescendo; the end must be near.
Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to try not to get in the way, which is exactly what I do as my now expert team works to decipher the final codes and deliver them to the keyboard one by one until until, finally, the computer unlocks, revealing the management’s dark secret.
It turns out that our evil bosses, obviously inspired by recent actions by Amazon and Starbuckswere trying to fire a brave member of staff for organizing a union.
We did it, and with just 23 seconds to spare. Great corporate high-fives all around. Justin bursts in to congratulate us. “Just in time,” he beams. “But now you have a choice to make: do you support your comrades and tell everyone about the misdeeds of your bosses? Do you lick these corporate clowns and help them cover their tracks? Or do you just sit with your arms crossed and do nothing? The choice is yours.”
We hesitate for a second, but then, in true camaraderie, we democratically and unanimously decide to put the sword to these capitalist beastmen. Granted, I wasn’t the most active member of our cohort, but I’d say I’m at least an odd cousin to this working family. Finally, a job helped me unlock my full potential.