Boost your security training with gamification -- really!

Boost your security training with gamification -- really!

Don't scoff; rewarding good deeds actually works.

Getting employees to take security seriously when security is not their job is an old challenge that now has a new answer: Gamification.

That's right; game-like elements can be used to enhance security awareness and modify users' behaviors. The results are tightly connected to the real world.

"Participants in our program were 50% less likely to click on a phishing link and 82% more likely to report a phishing email," reports Patrick Heim, chief trust officer at, describing the results the company saw after the first 18 months of an ongoing security awareness gamification effort that's based on positive recognition rather than negative reinforcement.

Participants in our program were 50% less likely to click on a phishing link and 82% more likely to report a phishing email. Patrick Heim, chief trust officer,

Building awareness of physical security was also part of the effort at Salesforce, which has 13,000 employees. A campaign to test "tailgating" (when an unauthorized person sneaks through a secured door by following immediately behind an authorized person) drew 300 volunteers who were rewarded if they successfully slipped through a door and took something.

Generally, before security training, 30% to 60% of users will fall victim to a fake phishing email, says Lance Spitzner, training director at the SANS Institute, a security training vendor. After training and six months to a year of a gamification program, the rate can fall to 5%, he says.


"Gamification has nothing to do with computer games," says Ira Winkler, president of Secure Mentem, a computer security firm in Annapolis, Md. "Rather, it's the application of gaming principles to a business problem."

Winkler says there are four principles to gamification:

  • Define a goal.
  • Define rules for reaching that goal.
  • Set up a feedback mechanism.
  • Make participation voluntary.

You can see those principles in action in the game of golf, he notes: The goal is to get the ball into the cup with the fewest attempts, but rules that forbid players from simply dropping it into the cup make the task intriguing. Feedback is provided by the scoring system, and players are there voluntarily.

In the case of corporate security awareness, gamification usually means awarding points to employees who do the right thing, with various forms of recognition, including badges, prizes and a leaderboard listing participants' point totals, he explains.

Gamification has long been a staple of training tools such as this Boeing flight simulator. Some experts now want to apply gamification principles to security training. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Security-related behaviors rewarded by such programs include reporting phishing emails, preventing or reporting tailgating, reporting or preventing other attempted intrusions (especially via social engineering), reporting USB memory sticks found on the ground, keeping desktop software properly patched and updated, maintaining strong passwords, attending security seminars, not leaving laptops in parked cars, and (for developers) reporting bugs or vulnerabilities.

But gamification is not a term that has been embraced widely in the business world. "As soon as you use the word 'game' in a corporate environment, there tends to be a lot of pushback, as work is supposed to be serious and games are not," says Jordan Schroeder, IT security administrator for Family Insurance Solutions in Vancouver, B.C. "So I have been using the term 'active feedback' instead. That flew a lot better."


Spitzner at SANS notes that security awareness gamification is not a mature field yet, and the few organizations that have done it have targeted only a few behaviors. Nevertheless, there are success stories, such as what happened at

"We wanted to see what would happen if we created a program where employees wanted to do the right things, rather than being pushed to do so," explains's Heim. After consultations with heads of business units, "We came up with a short list of behaviors that we believed would have the biggest impact, including optional security training, reporting phishing emails and preventing badge surfing" or tailgating.

Security training at the firm is mandatory, but participation in the corporation's gamified security awareness program is not, adds Heim. But employees get points and recognition if they do participate and take security-related actions, like reporting phishing attempts, he explains.

People who were my biggest concerns are now my number one partners in security. Jordan Schroeder, IT security administrator, Family Insurance Solutions

At Family Insurance Solutions, Schroeder says he relies on positive feedback when users do the right thing (in response to phishing and break-in attempts, real or drills), and showing them correct behavior when they do the wrong thing. Unlike at, there are no points, badges, levels or prizes, he says. "I am not convinced of the effectiveness of giving away physical things," in a small organization, he adds.

He was not able to supply specific metrics, but he notes that users no longer hide what they did wrong for fear of reprisals. "If they are confident of a positive response they want to elicit that response strongly, and will report emails hoping to get that response. People who are normally reticent are now openly engaging with me, asking if this or that is OK. It's exciting watching them educate themselves. People who were my biggest concerns are now my number one partners in security. I have been shocked at how successful it has been with people who I did not think it would be successful with."

Middle-aged office assistants tend to be the most responsive, while the ones he has the most trouble reaching are younger people who play computer games, he says. "They tend to see through the gamification, but do respond to challenges," he notes.

Tips and traps

Winkler adds that, before launching a gamification program, it is important to first establish the level of security awareness in the organization, to avoid wasted effort. Then, it is important to set up a rewards structure based on the culture of the organization and its business goals.

"You don't want to reward behavior that has no value," he notes. And "you need rewards that the people actually want." Handing out rewards that rank them as Star Wars Jedi knights may work with programmers, but not with investment bankers, he notes.

Points that can be exchanged for small prizes may prove motivating, or just putting names on a leaderboard may work, Winkler notes. Companies with offices in multiple locations, particularly internationally, may find it best to adopt different strategies in different locations. For instance, in some Asian countries, a chance to shake hands with the CEO may be more compelling, Winkler adds.

Points, if used, should be increasingly harder to get, by adding a ladder of levels, also called badges or titles, he explains. Points should be easy to get at the first level, and involve basic steps, such as attending seminars. Points at the next level should require spontaneous activity, such as reporting a phishing email or security incident, and points at higher levels should reward complex security activities, such as participating in drills, he indicates.

"Even if there is a failure (such as falling for a phishing email) you need to reward them for reporting the failure," Winkler adds. "If I know about it I can warn the rest of the firm. Gamification makes it seem that the security department is not there to punish people, but if all their interactions with security are negative, they are less likely to report incidents."

"Never release the names of the victims," Spitzner adds. "Let everyone know that if they fall victim their names will not go to their manager. If they think they will be reported, they will resent the program, since it will impact their career. The only time the manager is informed is if the person is repeatedly falling victim and represents a high risk. But do identify those who do something good," he adds.

Drills of some sort (such as sending out fake phishing emails or having agents attempt tailgating) should be done once a month. "But if it is weekly it becomes noise," Spitzner adds.

"Don't expect miracles; you will need to refine your program based on your successes and failures," Winkler warns. One common error involves rewarding the wrong behavior. He recalls an instance where software developers were rewarded for finding bugs, and so were reporting old ones and sometimes writing new ones just to report them.

Finally, Winkler warns that gamification is not the answer for every organization, especially if security is a regulatory requirement and participation is not voluntary.

Gaining traction

Corporate security pros aren't laughing at gamification.

"Gamification is something we are looking at," confirms Ahmad Douglas, senior director of security awareness at Visa Inc. in Ashburn, Va. "There is a presumption that if we hold security awareness week and have a talk and give away pens that somehow it had an impact on people's behaviors. We have not made that presumption." Instead, Visa has brought in a cognitive psychologist to examine how to counter threats by measurably alterin sg behavior.

"Gamification is a tool, but I don't want to presume that it is the solution," Douglas adds.

Gamification, or storytelling, or putting cartoons in bathrooms, whatever channels work for people, that is how we are going to get to them. Ahmad Douglas, senior director of security awareness, Visa

"Gamification, or storytelling, or putting cartoons in bathrooms, whatever channels work for people, that is how we are going to get to them," Douglas adds. "Whatever we do, it will be tied to a specific threat, it will have measurable outcomes and it will be based on real psychology."

The awareness problem actually has two segments, Douglas says. "Do they know what action you want them to take? Are they willing to take some action? You can't solve both with the same solution. If they don't know [something], you have to assess if it is realistically knowable and what is the best way to teach it. If they don't care to take action, you have an incentive problem and need to offer a reward."

Not all security professionals are fully buying into the gamification idea. "We use it to a certain degree, but not to the extent of having levels and points," says Jonathan Feigle, director of information security at Hyatt Hotels Corp. in Chicago. Awarding points to a global staff speaking many languages would involve numerous complications, he notes.

Beyond gamification

While Winkler and others emphasize that gamification does not mean the users play a game, others are willing to cross the border to actual games. For instance, start-up Apozy is developing a cloud-based computer game to teach security awareness, says co-founder Rick Deacon, who was previously a corporate penetration tester.

"We want to get the users engaged with something they enjoy using," he explains. The game simulates a corporate environment and the users take the part of attackers, who plan attacks based on what they learn during the course of play. Meanwhile, the software analyzes the users' decisions to make sure they understand the situation, he explains.

But whether the choice is gamification or actual games, the implication of the success of these approaches is that the answer to the problem of security awareness is not technology but human behavior. Instead of being victims of social engineering, enterprises are showing that they can protect themselves with their own form of social engineering -- one based on rewarding people for doing the right thing.

This article, Boost your security training with gamification -- really!, was originally published at

Lamont Wood is a freelance writer in San Antonio.

Read more about security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.

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