What does it mean, “to play?” And what does it mean, “to game?” These two ideas, at times treated synonymously, are not as clear-cut as one might think. According to Bo Kampmann Walther, an associate professor for the Department of Media Science at the University of Southern Denmark, games are “confined areas that challenge the interpretation of optimizing rules and tactics – not to mention time and space.”  On a basic level, Walther describes this feeling as “becoming one with a game,” almost as if you knew it like the back of your hand. These two different perspectives can lead to a drastic change in experience when taking on an escape room – on one hand, you have the average entertainment hobbyist AKA the “player,” who enjoys puzzles and riddles as much as the next guy; on the other, you have the hardcore enthusiast or “gamer,” who approaches these challenges on a much more serious level.
Believe it or not, professional gaming does exist and there are many players that play to a level where it’s not really considered “playing” anymore. The same could be said about escape rooms. Countless people study the intricacies of many games, “becoming one with them” and accomplishing a wide variety of achievements as a result of their inner fanatic. In this case, escape rooms have very limited achievements in the form of completion times and the number of hints used, if any. Many philosophers and avid gamers believe that games and gaming go far beyond the concept of “play,” which Art Education professor Ryan Patton defines as “voluntary, intrinsically motivated activities.”  These personally motivated activities can be as simple as playing house, organizing a messy room, or going to the gym regularly. Walther distinguishes this view in a fascinating way when he says, “play is an open-ended territory in which make-believe and world-building are crucial factors.”  It emphasizes a social responsiveness that focuses on improvisation, which allows the player to break certain rules not usually broken when “gaming.”
To make these concepts easier to comprehend, Walther stresses that one should view “gaming” as a higher level of “play” (i.e. “organized play”). For an escape room, there is still that intrinsic motivation to participate in the challenge, but there is more to it than just personal enjoyment. Walther distinguishes this view, saying, “games should not be “play”; but that does not imply that they do not require play. This means, in effect, that in play-mode, the deep fascination lies in the oscillation between play and non-play, whereas game-mode presses forward one’s tactical capabilities to sustain the balance between a structured and an unstructured space. In play-mode, one does not want to fall back into reality (although there is always the risk of doing so). In game-mode, it is usually a matter of climbing upwards to the next level and not lose sight of structure.”  For many novice players (n00bs), “play” is something that evolves over time as the beginners/amateurs turn into experienced gamers. By then, the concept of “playing” has evolved into “gaming” and turned into something much more than just exploring wide, open areas, collecting an assortment of clues, and deciphering complex riddles.
To this day, I’ve done eleven escape rooms with a 72.7% success rate. Not bad, considering that it was more “playing” than “gaming.” I remember how immediately hooked I was after my first escape room experience. The next couple rooms following my first experience got me more into the groove of things, introducing me to various types of linguistic riddles, logic puzzles, math problems, and other challenges. It was not until about my 6th escape room that the concept of “play” transcended into that higher level of “gaming,” where every bit of time, every bit of energy, and every bit of effort counted. A detailed understanding of any game’s mechanics and how to exploit them goes a long way in distinguishing the line between “playing” and “gaming.”
Personally, in my experience, I’ve found that a game’s genre as well as its game mechanics usually determine whether I will be “playing” or “gaming,” but that’s not always the case with escape rooms. Due to their unique nature, escape rooms have the potential to make a gamer out of all of us, regardless of their specific theme. Unlike multiplayer games like Call of Duty, Halo, DOTA, and League of Legends, which have evolved from simple casual play to more intense, competitive gaming, an escape room challenge is not on a high learning curve, as it equips players with the same tools and knowledge on a more equal-level playing ground. This allows players to gradually ascend to that ever elusive, serious “gamer” level and, as escape rooms continue to evolve, I can only imagine that these challenges will become competitive far beyond any ranking system or leadership board could truly capture.
But, whatever your preference is, just remember:
Have fun with it.
 Patton, Ryan M. (2014). Games That Art Educators Play: Games in the Historical and Cultural Context of Art Education. Studies in Art Education, April 2014, Vol. 55 Issue3, 242. Retrieved from http://web.b.ebscohost.com.oclc.fullsail.edu:81/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=ce21006f-e5ed-4b7a-ac75-6b9775f42acd%40sessionmgr111&vid=2&hid=125
 Walther, Bo Kampmann. (2003). Playing and Gaming: Reflections and Classifications. Retrieved from http://www.gamestudies.org/0301/walther/