Over Zoom, a group of coworkers make their way through a barn and a residential school classroom — analyzing photos, diary entries and other clues to unlock the story of a Sixties Scoop survivor named Della.
This is Della's Story: an online escape room game that's helping thousands of people to better understand a dark chapter in Canadian history.
"I call it Dungeons & Dragons meets escape room, meets Indigenous history," said LeeAnne Ireland, executive director of the Calgary-based Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth, which created the game.
The Sixties Scoop refers to a Canadian government practice from about the 1960s to 1980s of removing or "scooping" Indigenous children from their homes and placing them with non-Indigenous adoptive or foster parents, resulting in the loss of cultural identity.
Della, whose experience inspired the escape room, is a real person and a Sixties Scoop survivor who volunteers at the society, Ireland said.
Taken from her family as an infant, Della grew up knowing little about their history. Now in her late 50s, she's been trying to piece it together after going through the process of applying for compensation in the Sixties Scoop class action lawsuit.
Through that process, Della managed to uncover documents including her adoption and foster care paperwork and a title to land she didn't know she owned, Ireland said.
"We were looking through the documents, and we said to her, 'This really feels like an escape room' — putting these pieces together to try and figure out your history."
So, Ireland said, they decided together to make one.
Game draws thousands
The original plan had been to build an in-person escape room, but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the organization to make the game virtual.
That decision also allowed Della's Story to take on a life of its own. While Ireland expected a physical escape room might draw around 150 players, nearly 4,000 people have been through the virtual game since it launched in the spring of 2020.
It's become popular with a wide range of players, from school groups to corporate teams who've picked up the game as both an educational and a team-building tool.
"This is absolutely going to be part of our ongoing training," said Brenda Harwood, manager of diversity and inclusion with Jazz Aviation, which has so far done two sessions of Della's Story.
"We found it very unique in the way that it was presented."
Part of what made the game special, Harwood said, was the personal touch: it's facilitated by 23-year-old Jared Nelson, who is also Della's grandson.
Nelson expertly guides players through the game's different rooms and provides a debrief at the end of each session with a broader history and context of the Sixties Scoop.
Despite his personal connection to the game, leading it has also been a learning experience for him, Nelson said.
"Sadly, I was one of the few that wasn't so educated on the Sixties Scoop," said Nelson.
"That's why, also, I appreciate the people that come on by [and play the game], because you're here taking those steps with me."
'I learned so much more'
Since the game launched, Ireland said her organization has heard a common theme in the feedback.
"People are like, 'Oh, I've learned so much more than just reading this in a book,'" she said.
Expert Scott Nicholson said that's because, unlike watching a lecture or a video, taking part in an escape room is an engaging experience.
"You have to step forward and take an active role in the story," said Nicholson, a professor of game design at Wilfrid Laurier University who studies the role of escape rooms in education.
Ireland believes the focus on a single person, Della, also helps humanize an issue as wide-reaching as the Sixties Scoop.
And while playing an escape room game doesn't preclude the need for tougher conversations, Ireland said it can help people feel more open to learning about an example of historical injustice.
"By presenting it in a way that is sort of open, and engaging, and a little bit fun, and a little bit interesting, it really opens [people] up to thinking about it in a different way and not shutting down," said Ireland.
"It's not like one or the other — this is like a spectrum, a bunch of different supports that help people engage in the topic without feeling guilt, or shame, or hesitancy or shutting down before they even learn."
With National Indigenous History Month underway, Ireland encourages people from all walks of life to take part in dialogue about Indigenous history, whether that's through Della's Story or the many other events organized by local Indigenous groups.
"It's really important to engage and be good allies," she said. "Especially during this month."