Escape Rooms with Ants

In terms of PhD design work, 2016 was all about ants. It all started in January, when I convinced the department head that it was a good idea to put an ant colony on my desk at university. As long as I wouldn’t let them escape it was ok…

What happened next can be read in this blog post

Spoiler: they escaped, and this formed the inspiration for a short gamejam in which 16 interaction/game designers developed five prototypes for ‘escape-room challenges’ that ants could interact with. Afterwards, I set up a 24/7 live-stream for five weeks, during which the ants tried out all five prototypes.


Ant Empathy

The goal of this project was not to build a new form of ant human entertainment or demonstrate that ants are somehow playful. Instead, I wanted to see what kind of transformations would take place among designers, once they started to design for a species that they generally don’t relate to. In other words, I was looking for so-called ‘situated knowledges’ (subjective, partial, local kinds of insights) (Haraway, 1988) that could generate sensitivities among the designers and propose new ideas about our relationships with these ants.

This sensitivity already started to develop for me personally, as soon as I started spending time with these ants on a daily basis. Here’s a short piece of a journal that I kept during that time:

“Some days I feel a bit bad about having those ants in possession. […] It seemed like ants could actually be satisfied in captivity, because they have all the resources they need and in the wild they apparently don’t go further away from their nest than absolutely necessary. But the more I think about these things, the more I feel that I’m somehow cruel to them, especially in relation to their escape adventure and me blocking their way out (after they put so much effort into building their escape route) or using this as an insight into making escape rooms in which we as humans are in control of their life in such an unequal way.”

The designers of the prototype also had some things to say about the way it changed their views on the ants they designed for:

“I have never thought that ants possibly could enjoy certain activities, instead of doing it out of instinct or just to survive”

“It was super interesting as the word “empathy” often is a key word in IxD [Interaction Design]. This is usually easier with people as you can relate to them. It was fun trying to imagine yourself as an ant, and it somehow creates a “weird” bond with them that you had not considered before.”

“No…Or maybe a little. We began to give them personalities.”

“It was very interesting to design for something that you have absolutely no clue about. I feel more close to the ants (feels like that). And I can identify more since I know more about them.”

“I think we view them as much smarter animals now.”

“We almost humanize them by saying things are ‘fun’ and all. I don’t know how much of this is true, but it does make me wonder!”

“You can design with/for ants to entertain probably mostly oneself.”

“I never thought that ants are playful. Not that I thought they weren’t, I just did not think about it.”

A frequently mentioned topic in their reflections included the designers’ consideration of ants being perhaps “more playful”, “smarter”, or “more curious” than they would expect them to be. Furthermore, most participants seemed to be interested in giving more thought to the idea that ants might do something, such as exploring or manipulating objects, for reasons that are not purely functional or done for immediate survival. Perhaps the ants do something, simply because they want to. A few months later, the participants shared stories about the ants they encountered after this workshop and mentioned that they viewed the ants differently and they were more willing to share their living space with ant visitors.

Also online, among people that watched the livestreams, sensitivities for the ants were shared in different ways through social media. After the first day of streaming, the platform Twitch closed the online broadcast of the ants interacting with the escape room prototypes and labelled it as “non-gaming related content”. This event generated mixed feelings among viewers that started arguing online about the potential paradox (and the irony) of designing escape rooms for captive animals and society’s concept of gaming understood as an exclusively human activity. This situation produced several online discussions and illustrated different degrees of sensitivity that people perceived in their relationships with these ants while watching them interact with the prototypes:

Ant Escapes

In terms of the ants’ interactions with the escape rooms. Interesting and surprising things happened too. Even though the designers had to rely on the little information they had about ant behaviour, the ants managed to escape from 3 of the 5 rooms. In a previous blog post, I described how the designers envisioned the escapes from each of the prototypes. Here are some images from the actual interactions of the ants with the prototypes:


During the week the first prototype was connected, the ants followed the plan of the designers quite accurately. They did have some trouble pushing that tiny metal ball through the tube, but after I helped out with that they continued their path and escaped within a couple of days.


This gif shows the escape from another prototype. The ants found the exit of this room within the first day and spent the rest of the week exploring my living room. Because the queen ant always remains inside the nest, the escaped worker-ants always return to their original living space, even after their escape.


This is a capture from the third room they escaped from. Here the ants were supposed to build a bridge over a tiny river that separated two areas, but instead they found their way via the walls. In most of the prototypes, the designers used vegetable oil to prevent the ants from walking on the plexiglass walls (this makes the surface slippery). It seems like the ants still found a way around the oily areas.

How are the ants doing?

One of the questions I got asked very often during this year was “how are your ants?”. This was always an opening into new stories. One of these includes the fact that, during this whole escape-room-live-stream phase, the ants dug a hole directly through the top of their nest, bypassing the need to solve each of the prototypes as a way to get out (see the gif below). Of course I was happy about this, since this meant that the ants were not restricted in their behaviour every time I connected a new prototype.


After the live stream finished, I left this exit open, so that the ants could roam around freely. But in general they never went very far away from the nest. Over the summer I found that they moved closer to a water source after I came back from a period of traveling. In this case they moved back in as soon as I provided more water closer to their nest. However now, perhaps because of the changes in season, it seems like the ants decided to move out entirely. I haven’t seen them for a while and I am not sure where they moved to. Perhaps to a nearby water source, a dark area, the balcony, or the neighbours. I hope they are doing well, and I think that the ants themselves have clearly marked the end of this project with their final move!

A paper on this project, written together with Stefano Gualeni, was recently published at the Philosophy of Computer Games conference and can be found here.


Haraway, D. (1988). Situated knowledges: The science question in feminism and the privilege of partial perspective. In Feminist Studies, 14(3), pp. 575-599.

Westerlaken, M., and Gualeni, S. Situated Knowledges and Game Design: A Transformative Exercise with Ants. Proceedings of  the Philosophy of Computer Games Conference, (Valletta, MLT, November 1-4, 2016). PDFLINK