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In real-life escape rooms, the countdown timer is a key element. Usually it’s 50 mintues or an hour, and the clock is prominently displayed to players while they are in the room. The entire goal of the room is to escape before the timer runs out. So it stands to reason that, for many digital escape room creators, the timer would be an important element.
In my first YouTube Digital Escape Room Tutorial [watch it here], I suggest using a YouTube video (of a countdown timer) as the timer for your room. However, there are lots of questions and challenges with this technique, as a quick scroll through that video’s comments reveals:
- “What happens when the time runs out? I don’t see any way to stop their access to the room, or start over if they run out of time?”
- “I am super confused about how to keep the timer from resetting. Mine resets every time they click out of the link and have to go back to the original room. Can you help?”
- “The question is worded so that students should select one of the multiple choice times to see how their time compares with others. How did you do that?”
- “Good video, but not everything works. A video won’t start playing automatically when you share the preview link with people. Also they can just pause the timer whenever they want which renders it useless.”
- “how do you put the timer?”
So, in this article, I’m going to do a deep dive into digital escape room timers. Why should you use them? Why might you want to avoid them? And, what are the pros and cons of various methods you can use to add timer to your digital escape room? Are there specific technical elements and limitations you need to take into consideration? Finally, how might escape room participants to see how their time compares to others?
Question 1: To Timer or Not to Timer
To put it simply: timers in an escape room are fun! They add a sense of urgency to the challenge, and make the digital activity feel more like an in-person escape room. However, as fun and exciting as a timer might be, there are several reasons why you might want to forego an embedded timer in your digital escape room activity:
If you are going to be delivering your escape room activity synchronously, you may need to be flexible with the time allowed, especially the first time your activity is completed. If the room is easier than you anticipate, you may want to end the activity sooner than planned; or you may need to extend the time, if participants or struggling or facing technical issues. In synchronous classes or meetings, you can always time the activity without having to embed the timer. Or you can just leave it open ended and let different individuals or groups race to complete the challenge as quickly as possible, noting 1st, 2nd, 3rd place, etc. rather than using a timer.
One more note: if you are creating an escape room to be used by a variety of teachers in a variety of settings, making it timer-less or using a timer that “counts up” from zero rather than counting down gives teachers the opportunity to set time requirements for their students themselves.
If you are delivering this escape room setting in a classroom, you may need to be cognizant of differing student abilities and limitations. A common accommodation for many students involves extra time for assessments; this could be needed due to learning disabilities, the need for using screen readers, or for issues like anxiety. With the excpetion of embedding an escape room activity into an LMS like Canvas (see option #5 below), basic timer options will not allow you to differentiate time limits between participants, unless you create multiple copies of the same escape room.
If you are delivering your escape room challenge remotely, you also need to be aware of differing internet access for your participants – someone with slow internet may have lagging issues with your timer or your activity so that the use of the timer may be unfair to them.
One alternative you may want to consider to increase accessibility and flexibility is to add a timer that functions more like a stopwatch than an alarm – have it set to start counting up from 0:00, and then have the students report how much time has elapsed once they’ve completed the room. (Many of the timer options I will detail in this article allow for a “count up” timing function, so keep reading if that is something you are interested in.)
If you are creating an escape room activity that will be delivered remotely, particularly if it will be completed asynchronously, students are ultimately acting on the honor system. For many of the timer methods I’ll be explaining in this article, participants have to report their own times or scores, so there is of course their is a chance that their reported times will be inaccurate. Even the methods that “force” the timer can be hacked or reset or opened multiple times so as to bypass the timer, so if you are hoping to use a timer to accurately track participation in a digital escape room activity, you may want to rethink your strategy.
My recommendation: I personally love incorporating timers in escape room activities – but in a very low-stakes manner (allowing submission after the timer, letting students self-report, etc.). This way participants get the sense of fun and urgency you find in an in-person escape room, but you are still being mindful of potential accessibility issues the participants may experience.
So… how do we do this? What are the best ways to add a timer to a digital escape room?
The methods that I recommend are as follows:
- Embed a YouTube video timer into Google Forms, Slides, or Sites
- Embed a timer video file via Google Drive (into Forms, Slides, or Sites)
- Use a Google Forms timer Add On (I like Timer for Google Forms)
- Embed an html timer widget in Google Sites (I like vclock.com)
- Use a timed quiz within an LMS (like Canvas or Blackboard)
Want a quick overview to decide which method might be best for you?
Use this chart to compare all the options at a glance — then keep reading for more detailed descriptions of each option.
|YouTube Video||Video File||Google Forms Add-On||HTML Widget||LMS*
details vary per system
|Timer Customizations?||Unlimited||Unlimited||Duration and Basic Form customizations only||Minimal, but depends on the widget||Usually None or minimal|
|Keeps running when current tab changes?||No||No||Yes – when switching form sections||No||Within the same quiz, yes|
|How are times tracked?||Self-reported (via Google Form)||Self-reported (via Google Form)||Auto-tracked in Google Sheet||Self-reported (via google Form)||Auto-tracked via LMS|
|Pause-able?||Yes||Yes||No||Depends on Widget||Usually no|
Option #1: Embedding a YouTube Video Timer
This is probably the most-commonly recommended method for adding a timer to digital escape rooms – whether they are housed in Google Forms, Google Slides, Google Sites, or some other platform – and it is definitely the easiest.
To do this, I would start by going to YouTube and searching for whatever duration of timer you want: “15 minute timer,” “60 minute timer,” etc. There are tons of these videos on YouTube, and you can explore the different options to find the style of video timer that is best for your escape room.
A few things to consider while selecting your YouTube video:
1. Some timer videos play sound – ticking, music, etc – before the timer goes off, while others are silent. Some have loud “explosions” or noise when the timer ends, and others have simple beeps or just end. Think about what will be best for your participants when selecting your video.
2. Make sure you watch and listen to the entire video before adding it to your activity.
3. Know that the “channel icon” and channel title of the video you selected will show up within your escape room, so make sure the channel name is appropriate in in the video you select.
4. You can select to start your timer at a different point than the beginning, so if you want, for example, a 28-minute timer, you could embed a 30-minute timer and code it to start 2 minutes in.
5. If you want to find a timer that “counts up” (from zero), rather than one that counts down, try searching for the word “stopwatch.”
6. It is likely that your participants could see ads or “related videos” when viewing a YouTube timer. These will be dependent on the video you chose, as well as the participant’s account’s viewing history.
Once you have your video selected, you will need to embed it in whatever program or app you are using to house your escape room.
- In Google Slides, select Insert > Video. In the “YouTube” search box that appears, type or paste either the name of your video or its url. You will be able to layer and resize this video, just like you would an image, and there are YouTube-specific settings you can customize as well.
Embedding Video Within Google Slides
- There are 3 different options you can select for your YouTube video in Google Slides: Play automatically, play on click, and play manually.
- If you select Play Automatically, the video will play as soon as the slide is viewed, however this can be disabled by individual browsers (and Firefox will disable it by default).
- If you select Play on Click, then the timer will start as soon as the participant clicks anywhere on the slide.
- If you select Play Manually, then the participant will need to click directly on the video image to start the timer.
- If your escape room slideshow is designed so that participants move from slide to slide of your presentation in the same tab, this timer will not will not work. The timer will stop when a new slide is viewed and will reset every time the participant returns to the timer slide.
- This means, if you want to specifically EMBED a YouTube video timer in your Google Slide-based escape room, you will need to make it a single-slide presentation (or hack the links so that other slides open in a new tab).
Embedding Video Within Google Forms
- Select Add Video from the “adding things” menu, then follow the same steps as above. (Type or paste the name or url of your video in the search box, click on your video, and then click “Select.”)
- You can choose whether your video is aligned to the right, left, or center of your form, but you cannot set it to auto-play.
- If your form has multiple sections, then the video will stop timing when you jump from one section to another.
Embedding Video Within Google Sites
- Select the “Embed” option from the Insert Menu. From here you can copy paste either the URL or embed code of the video timer you have chosen.
- Or, choose YouTube from the Insert menu, and follow steps similar to those listed above.
- Then you can re-size the video as needed. You can also use the settings to keep participants from viewing the video full-screen, though they will be able to open the timer video in a new tab if they choose.
- In google sites, if participants start a video, and then go to a different site page within the same tab, the video will pause. If the participant returns to the timer page, they can re-start the timer, or choose to start it over; it will not start automatically.
Final Thoughts about Embedded Timers
Embedded timers, whether they are from YouTube, Vimeo, or an uploaded file (like I will mention in the next section), only work as long as they are allowed to play continuously within a tab. That means if your escape room involves many slides or web pages in one presentation that open in the same tab, the timer will stop and/or reset when you switch slides. If you are using an embedded timer, make sure that the tab with the timer stays open continuously, and set any links to other slides/pages/activities to open in a new tab so that the timer can continue to run.
You can experiment with this for yourself. At the beginning of this article, I asked you to start a YouTube timer. Scroll up and see if that timer is still running. Then experiment with switching tabs, or going forwards and backwards within this tab. Every browser tends to handle this slightly differently, but most will stop or restart an embedded video when you switch pages or slides within a single tab – and keep running in the background if you switch to a new tab.
Option #2: Embedding a YouTube Timer File
If you are uncomfortable with or unable to incorporate YouTube videos into your escape room, there is another option for including a video timer, and that option involves uploading a video file of the timer into your Google Drive.
If you are adept at video creation, you can create this timer video yourself, or you can go to a site like Teachers Pay Teachers and purchase a timer video file download from there. [add links] One thing to note: Videos must be in .mp4 format in order to be embedded using this method (mov files do not work).
Once you “own” the video file, you can upload that video into your Google Drive. (Make sure the permissions on the video file are set so that anyone with the link can view) Then select the “Google Drive” option (instead of YouTube) when embedding your video into your Google Form, Slide, or Site.
One thing to note, there is a short lag time between when a video file is uploaded to your Google Drive, and when you will be able to view it as an embedded video.
Once your video has processed, you will have similar playback options (in Google Slides) as you have for embedded YouTube videos: play on click, play manual, and play automatically.
Option #3: Using a Google Form Timer Add On
Since Google Forms are often used for academic assessments, many people have created Google Form Add Ons that allow you add a timer onto a Google Form.
In order to use one of these add ons as the timer for your escape room, you would need to base the entire room out of Google Forms (so that the initial link you share with participants is a Google Forms link, rather than a Slides or Sites one). However, within your Google Form, you could include links to other slides, sites, or resources.
Depending on how it is designed, a Google Forms timer can display time remaining to your escape room participants, play a sound when time is up (or warnings when time is nearly up), and even kick students out of the form once the timer has finished.
Doing a search for “timer” on the Google Forms Add On page yields quite a few different results. Out of the ones I have tried, my favorite so far is an Add On called “Timer for Google Forms.” This timer does not require the user to sign into Google in order to work, and you can customize all the settings right within the form itself.
Things I like about this timer:
- Participants do not have to be logged into Google to use
- Simple interface that you can set up entirely within the google Form
- Keeps the branding and layout of your form, so you can do customizations there
- Auto-tracks time inside your form results
- Timer will not sound unless you are actively on the tab that contains the form
- Cannot force submit
- Not able to let students compare results to their peers anonymously
Option #4: Embed an HTML Timer Widget into Google Sites
I love creating digital escape rooms with Google Sites, and one thing that sets Sites apart from Forms or Slides is the fact that it lets you embed things other than YouTube or Google Drive files into your site. This means, you can embed a timer widget directly into your webpage, by grabbing the widget’s embed code and selecting the “Embed” option from the Google Sites Insert menu.
To get this embed code, you must find a website that provides them. My favorite site that I’ve found for countdown widgets is https://vclock.com/timer — this site creates simple, clean-looking timer widgets that can be customized in terms of light/dark mode, number font, size, and duration. Just scroll down to the bottom of the page to grab the embed code to add to your Google Site.
Much like embedded YouTube videos, however, this timer will stop working if you navigate to a new page within the same tab of your Google Site. So if you want the timer to keep running, you’ll need to make sure any pages you link to are set to “open in a new window.”
Option #5: Create Your Escape Room Within a Timed LMS Quiz
If you really, really, REALLY want to enforce a time limit for a digital escape room, probably the most reliable way to do this would be with a timed quiz inside of an LMS (learning management system) like Canvas, D2L, or Blackboard.
The settings customization options for this timer are going to depend specifically on your LMS quiz settings, but most of these platforms have an option to auto-submit the quiz at the time limit, which, out of all the options, I’ve shared would most closely mirror the experience of “failing to escape” a real life escape room. You could even combine this option with other options listed previously by adding links within the LMS quiz to a specific Google slide, form, or site.
Additionally, at least in the Canvas LMS, if students are enrolled in your course, you can assign different quiz time limits to various students or sections of students, which would allow you to easily make accommodations within your escape room for students who may need more time to complete the activity, for whatever reason.
The timer results for the quiz should be available within your Quiz results, of course, depending on which LMS you are using and what permissions you have available.
Seeing Timer Results
With the exception of the LMS option (#5), all of the escape room scenarios I’ve described in this article rely on a Google Form to function as the “lock” of the escape room, using a feature in Short Answer Questions called “Response Validation.”
If you use Google Forms as your “lock,” then you have a couple of options for seeing your timer results.
Results Option #1: If you’ve elected to use a Google Forms Timer Add On (in Option #3 above), then students’ times will automatically be recorded in your Google Forms results spreadsheet.
Results Option #2: If you are using one of the video-based or html-based timer methods listed above, then your participants will need to self-report their times in order for you to track them.
To do this, you need to add a question to your Google Form lock that asks the partcipants how long it took them to escape the room. This can be an open-ended Short Answer question or a multiple choice question, where you provide different ranges of time to choose from. (0:00-5:00, 5:01-15:00, etc.)
If you have done this, then you can give participants the option to see how their response compares to everyone else who has completed the escape room. To do this go the settings of your Google Form, expand the “Presentation” drop down menu, and turn on “view results summary.”
This will give participants the option to click a “See previous responses” link to see how their time compares to everyone else who took the quiz. One note about this – if you turn this option on, participants will automatically be able to see all responses to every question in your form. So if you go this route, you probably don’t want to ask any identifying or feedback questions in the “Escape Room Lock” form itself.
In this article, I’ve shared many different pros and cons and options for including a digital timer in your escape room, but truthfully the options are limited only by your imagination! What other ways can you think of to include a digital timer in an escape room activity? Comment and let me know below!
*Of course this article will not self-destruct, and you are welcome to return to it as many times as you like. However, if you would like to see how the amount of time you’ve spent reading/skimming/scrolling through this article compares to others’ times, scroll up to the video timer that you started when you began this article. Then, scroll back down to fill out the embedded Google Form link below.