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.

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."

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