Have you ever suffered the consequences of someone else’s online gaming habits? Maybe it was your college roommate playing World of Warcraft mere hours before your 8am exam, your partner choosing Call of Duty over date night, or your child’s “hidden” Candy Crush play under the dinner table as you tried to ask about their day. It is not unheard of for frequent gaming to negatively affect one’s ability to focus, productivity at work, or social relationships. In fact, in 2018, the World Health Organization even recognized “gaming disorder” among the addictive disorders included in its 11th edition of the International Classification of Diseases. Disorders are classified when the associated pattern of behavior results in significant distress or impairment in “personal, family, social, educational, or occupational functioning.”

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The global gaming market, which spans casual mobile games to immersive other world simulations, brought in $177.8 billion in revenue last year, a 23 percent increase from 2019. A market of this size holds incredible potential and raises the question—is gaming inherently wrong? Are there opportunities to harness the captivating (and addictive) aspects of this trend for good?

Applications in Education

Companies are eager to leverage the gaming market in the education sector, including the growing adoption of e-sports in schools. Roblox Corporation recently announced a $10 million investment for nonprofits to develop games for middle school, high school, and college students in subjects such as robotics and computer science. This move signaled the company’s interest in expanding its user platform—which merges the gaming experience with entertainment, social media, toys, and digital currency—with an eye toward the next generation of the internet, the metaverse. Education has the potential to play a significant role in the metaverse, allowing students to have immersive, 3D, virtual (and cost-effective) experiences such as visiting the ancient pyramids of Egypt, stargazing in a planetarium, or dissecting a frog.

The use of computer games in school settings is not new. Elder millennials will remember some of the earliest applications of classroom computer games (on a floppy disk!), such as Number Munchers and the generation-defining Oregon Trail. In the decades since, the applications of digital games in the classroom have expanded and evolved in sophistication, only increasing in prevalence with the remote and hybrid learning models that became the norm in 2020.

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The education sector represents a significant tranche of U.S. foreign assistance, with more than $1 billion in funding obligated to the “Education and Social Services” sector in the fiscal year 2019. But relevance extends much further, as education and learning are incorporated across development programs in the form of capacity building and knowledge transfer. Other applications include multi-stakeholder preparedness and response simulations, such as coordinating the government response to a natural disaster or disease outbreak.

Applications in Cybersecurity

Gamification is already used for cybersecurity learning, both for security awareness initiatives (teaching security principles to non-security professionals) and cybersecurity training, and education to cultivate security professionals. In an interview with InfoSec, Jessica Gulick, leader of Katzky Consulting and Commissioner of the U.S. Cyber Games, notes several benefits of gamification for security professionals and their employers:

  1. It offers a hands-on way for security professionals to gain exposure to the latest cyber threats in a safe environment where they can gain experience hacking or essentially breaking things to learn how to fix them. It is not safe to “play” or practice hacking on the internet (and in fact, there are real consequences for doing so).

  2. The elements of competition and teamwork are highly relevant for the field and help advance professional development faster than a traditional classroom boot camp. Cyber games such as Capture the Flag or “CTF” expose employees to different environments and threats than what they see in their daily work. These exercises provide an opportunity to sharpen their skills and awareness, ultimately adding more value to the company that employs them.

  3. Cybersecurity competitions and e-sports can provide an opportunity for scholarships, networking, and resume builders such as Digital Badges. It also offers name recognition in an arena where unknown hackers will occasionally expose a vulnerability in government or high-profile company websites to make a name for themselves.

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The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) named cybersecurity as a development challenge in its Cybersecurity Primer released last month. While cybersecurity has long been an interest of the U.S. Government (essentially since the existence of computers), it is only recently that it has become a priority for USAID programming. With the increase in digitalization of systems and the associated risks to critical infrastructure, cybersecurity is now being incorporated into international development as a critical consideration for projects across sectors (e.g., health, governance). There has also been a rise in dedicated digital projects and cybersecurity initiatives, such as those under the interagency Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership, the USAID-funded Ukraine Cybersecurity for Critical Infrastructure activity and the newly awarded USAID-funded Critical Infrastructure Digitalization and Resilience project.

A common objective in donor-funded cybersecurity programming is to build the workforce’s capacity, establishing a pipeline of qualified cybersecurity and IT professionals equipped to meet the country’s needs. This is a challenge in the United States as well. The Washington Post recently reported approximately 377,00 unfilled cybersecurity jobs in the United States and 2.7 million globally. In most contexts, the evolution of cybersecurity threats far outpaces the process of reviewing and updating university curriculum. Traditional classroom coursework is not sufficient to prepare graduates to support the needs of employers in government or the private sector. Providing opportunities for regular hands-on, simulation-based learning environments such as cyber ranges is key to equipping students and security professionals alike to meet real-world defense and detection needs.

Cybersecurity education games already exist for students as early as elementary school, such as Google’s Interland. While promoting such a curriculum in schools won’t produce the workforce results donors expect within the span of a five-year program, it may just be the surest way to bolster the pipeline of future cybersecurity professionals to fill the gaps that are needed worldwide.