Industry insights

How gamification boosts security awareness training effectiveness 

Drew Robb
October 5, 2021 by
Drew Robb

Ransomware and its partner in crime phishing are very much in the spotlight of late. According to the Phishing Activity Trends Report by APWG, the quantity of phishing doubled in 2020 and continues to rise.

In response, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has launched a campaign to address ransomware. It takes a two-pronged approach: improving security readiness and raising awareness. Its campaign encourages organizations to implement best practices, tools and resources to mitigate the risk of falling victim to ransomware.

“Anyone can be the victim of ransomware, and so everyone should take steps to protect their systems,” said Director of CISA Brandon Wales.

Phishing simulations & training

Phishing simulations & training

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But protection doesn’t just mean buying new security systems and implementing better processes and policies. The CISA campaign emphasizes training as an integral part of anti-ransomware and anti-phishing success.

Employee security awareness training

“The greatest technology in the world won't do you much good if your users are not well educated on security and don’t know what to do and not do,” said Greg Schulz, an analyst at Server StorageIO Group. “Too many security issues are attributed to humans falling prey to social engineering.”

But building the best security awareness training program requires combining the right training with the right approach. According to a report by Computer Economics, Security Training Adoption and Best Practices 2021, the security training given to staff in some cases only goes as far as insisting all users sign off on reading organizational security policies and procedures. How much of it are they likely to retain?

“All it takes is one weak link among the workforce, and state-of-the-art security technology is breached,” said Frank Scavo, President of Computer Economics. “The goal of security training should be to erect a human firewall of informed and ever-vigilant users: an army of personnel with high awareness of social engineering methods provides an extra safeguard against attack.”

Lunch-and-learn anti-phishing awareness briefings are a little better than only making employees read policy. Lunch-and-learns may earn a small improvement in the reduction of phishing success, but not nearly enough. Similarly, traditional classroom and textbook learning has only a modest effect on the number of phishing victims.

What it takes is a multi-faceted response to phishing and ransomware via interactive learning. The introduction of gamification, in particular, to the field of security awareness training has been shown to boost results.

Gamification of cybersecurity training

“People can easily tune out when subjected to static security awareness training,” said Schulz. “But make it an interactive learning experience or game, and people are more likely to engage while being entertained and educated on the do’s and don’ts of modern IT security threat risks.”

What exactly is gamification? Gabe Zichermann, author of “The Gamification Revolution,” defined it as "taking what’s fun about games and applying it to situations that maybe aren’t so fun.”

Gamification is essentially about finding ways to engage people emotionally to motivate them to behave in a particular way or decide to forward a specific goal. In training, it's used to make learning a lot more fun.

Effective gamification techniques applied to security training use quizzes, interactive videos, cartoons and short films with characters and plots that entertain while getting across the important facts about phishing and other scams — and how to avoid them.

In "The Forrester Wave: Security Awareness and Training Solutions, Q1 2020,” Jinan Budge, an analyst at Forrester Research, said, “Successful vendors deliver the ABCs of security: awareness, behavior and culture. Look for providers that truly understand how training contributes to your overall security culture and don’t just check the training requirement box.”

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Later in the same report, she added: “Choose vendors that create positive content with inclusive, clear and compelling images and that engage users with alternative content types like gamification, microlearning and virtual reality (VR). Some vendors offer true gamification that involves teams, competition and advanced graphic design, engaging discerning audiences on a deeper level than multiple-choice tests or phishing simulations.”

Cybersecurity gamification examples

Here is one cybersecurity gamification example used to increase awareness of correct and incorrect user behavior. It makes use of a cartoon with an entertaining story, as well as multiple-choice options to engage the viewer. The use of such content is proven to broaden the appeal of training and significantly reduce susceptibility to phishing attempts and other social engineering trickery.

Done correctly, the percentage of those falling prey to phishing will drop dramatically. As a result, ransomware has less chance of gaining a foothold.

“People can be the weak link in many IT security exploits,” said Schulz. “Invest in your people, so they know what to watch out for to protect your data and tech.”



Drew Robb
Drew Robb

Drew Robb has been writing about IT, engineering and cybersecurity for more than 25 years. He's been published in numerous outlets and resides in Florida.