Carnegie Mellon University

Carnegie Mellon Institute for Politics and Strategy alumni spotlight Chris Sparks

October 13, 2021

Building escape rooms with Chris Sparks

By Bill Brink

On a rainy day in Denver in 2016, Chris Sparks and his family needed something to do.

They stumbled across an escape room. “Dorm of the Dead,” it was called, with the goal of saving the campus from the zombie apocalypse, as one does. They lost.

“Not only had I never had that much fun on vacation before with my family, but I was hooked,” Sparks said. “I came back to Maryland and played six or seven other escape rooms, got my butt kicked, but I learned how they worked. And now, 130 escape rooms and my own company later, I love them, because escape rooms give us a chance not only to escape from puzzles but to truly escape from a crazy world for a while, and there’s a magic in it.”

Sparks, who graduated Carnegie Mellon University in 2013 with a Bachelor of Science in International Relations and Politics, is now the CEO of Game Overlords, LLC, which runs Surelocked In Escape Games in his hometown of Frederick, Maryland. His path to creating escape rooms included working for Stanley McChrystal, coaching students and young professionals, and coordinating youth and young adult ministry for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. 

“I never, ever could have expected where I would have ended up on graduation day,” Sparks said. “If you are reading this article and you have no idea what the next five years holds, you’re in good company and you’re going to be great.”

In high school, Sparks started an improv comedy club that grew to include more than 100 members. Once he found out about Carnegie Mellon’s strong theater program, he applied and auditioned, and though he was not accepted to the School of Drama, he got into the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, “which suited me so much more for what I haven’t yet realized that I wanted to do. 

“They very quickly said, ‘Hey, look, given the whole diversity of programs that are housed under this college, it is not uncommon for natural leaders to gravitate here,’” he said. “What we find, and this is what they told us during orientation, is that students that are enrolled in the school often take leadership positions across the campus, and that ended up being true incredible fast.”

Sparks became involved in the Student Dormitory Council, served as a resident assistant and community advisor and continued his improv work with the No Parking Players Improv Troupe. He created a leadership development program for first-year students, called 6@6, where six students from six first-year dorms for dinner at 6 p.m., and he’d give them a mission to help them reimagine the campus.

“I remember that first year, it was just this incredible feeling of, “Hey, I’m at Carnegie Mellon University, I’m at one of the most respected and admired schools in the world, and I’m amongst my peers,” Sparks said. “I’m not being left behind. I feel like I belong here, and that was such a cool feeling.”

Sparks loved his first-year seminar course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with Dr. Richard Scheines, now the dean of the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences. He also enjoyed a class on negotiation with Dr. Linda Babcock. Eventually, all of the courses he wanted to take were full unless you were an IRP major. So he became an IRP major.

In the spring of 2012, he also participated in the Carnegie Mellon University Washington Semester Program and interned in the office of Representative William Lacy Clay. He toured the Capitol’s underground tunnel system, watched the Congressional Research Service generate custom reports, and was in the room during the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing about contraceptive access in the Affordable Care Act – a hearing with all male panelists.

“You would show up and you never knew what to expect,” Sparks said. “Some days you would essentially be following the legislative staffer around or helping the member with whatever they needed. Other days, if you had free time, there were a ton of free and interesting seminars being taught by subject matter experts that you could sit in on for free with a congressional ID.”

When Gen. McChrystal, the former commander of US and international forces in Afghanistan and former commander of Joint Special Operations Command, came to speak at Carnegie Mellon in the fall of 2012, Sparks anticipated a talk about military tactics. What he heard instead was a discussion of the importance of relationships. He went home that night and submitted his resume and cover letter, and after graduation he got a job with the McChrystal Group. For ten months, he received a crash course in leadership from the experts, but when the consulting company fell on hard times, he was one of the first casualties as one of the newest additions.

“I went from being the guy with the Carnegie Mellon degree, the apartment, the car, just learning how to adult, to, oh gosh what do I do next?” Sparks said. 

Using the teaching and training certifications he earned with the McChrystal Group, Sparks founded PathForge, a leadership and mentorship company that helped college students and young adults transition into the workforce. Sparks, a religious man, also heeded the call from the Lord to volunteer with the Catholic church, and he served as the Coordinator of Youth and Young Adult Ministry for the Archdiocese of Baltimore. 

“All of a sudden, I found myself going from a consultant who flew all over the country to teach people leadership skills to a teacher who was teaching 300 kids a weekend not only about the Catholic faith, but also how to be the best versions of ourselves in a world that was constantly changing,” Sparks said.

While at Carnegie Mellon, Sparks played a ton of board games: Betrayal at House on the Hill, the Game of Thrones board game, and whatever he and his friends could get their hands on from Games Unlimited. “Chris, if you could ever figure out how to play games for a living,” went the joke among his friends and family, “you’d be off to the races.” Then came the vacation to Denver. Now, Surelocked In operates six escape room experiences, with more on the way.

“What makes a good escape room is a compelling story,” Sparks said. “A compelling story is what brings you into another world and makes that immersion complete. To build an immersive story we always start with the five senses. We start with, hey, what story are we trying to tell and what things would you be seeing and feeling and smelling and hearing while you are in this world? So if we’re building a pirate ship room, what are you going to see? What do the walls look like? What are the objects that you’re going to be able to touch and pick up and move around?”

Sparks knew he wanted to run for office someday, and after the pandemic shut down his business for three months and he watched those in power struggle to adapt to it, he ran for a seat on Frederick’s Board of Aldermen this fall.

“As a patterns guy, as a guy who designs puzzles for a living, it became clear to me that the solutions that were needed, I could not provide as a lone businessman,” Sparks said. “I needed to step into the role of an elected official to lead the conversations and push forward the solutions we needed to help the people who were suffering.” 

Sparks did not progress past the primary, but he was thrilled with his campaign team and volunteers during a process that he called a tremendous learning experience. Onto the next adventure, he said, a phrase that he lives more than most.

“The future isn’t set in stone,” Sparks said. “All those lessons that I learned along the way, of the ability to think on my feet, and how important it is to build sincere relationships, and how important it is to follow your heart and to learn the things that you’re good at and the things that give you life, those are the things that have dominated my destiny and I could not be happier for it.”