Boost your security training with gamification

Getting employees to take security seriously can be a game that everyone wins.


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.

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