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Cybersecurity In-Depth

5 min read
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Could Gaming Close the Cyberskills Gap?

The Wicked6 hackathon helps women to develop their professional cybersecurity skills while networking and playing games.

Wicked6 has the look and feel of an e-sports competition. There are a variety of games and skill levels for the competitors, and lots of action to follow for the spectators. You can even buy some pretty sweet swag.

But Wicked6 isn't an e-sports competition. It's a 24-hour marathon of cyber games for women, with players ranging from college students to seasoned cybersecurity pros. And while there will be prizes for the winners, Wicked6 is a chance to network, to hear from women in the cybersecurity field, and, most of all, to practice skills — or learn new ones — without consequences. If someone misses an exploit here, no one's business network will be at risk of a cyberattack; instead, that person will just fall behind in a game environment.

Cyber games are a lot like e-sports, but with a purpose. They give cybersecurity professionals hands-on experience in how to detect and solve real-world cyberattacks, in a format that is a lot of fun.

Games take the pressure off of having to be the best and smartest in the room, says Mari Galloway, CEO and founding board member of Women's Society of Cyberjutsu, which hosts Wicked6 as its primary fundraising event.

"It's fun to play games. We like to solve challenges and feel confident when solving them. Games allow you to do that," Galloway says. "At the same time, it gives them the hands-on experience they wouldn't get in school or training."

Job Training Through Gaming
The cyber skills gap continues to plague organizations. Even though more people are entering the field, there are nearly 3 million global positions still unfilled, according to research from (ISC)2. Businesses have improved their efforts to reach out to a more diverse group of potential new hires and increased their training for employees, but the gap remains.

In addition, in an industry that is constantly adding new technologies and defending against increasingly sophisticated adversaries, it's difficult for seasoned professionals to keep current with their skills, even with regular certificate-based training. And internships for college students only provide so much hands-on experience.

Cyber games provide the training needed for an industry that's always evolving. For participants, the games are a way to showcase their skills to potential employers.

The games offer participants a safe place to hack, says Jessica Gulick, founder and CEO of marketing firm Katzcy and e-sports organization PlayCyber, as well as president of the board for Women's Society of Cyberjutsu. You can't practice these skills on your home network, she says, nor do people have the opportunity in the workplace to experiment and push the limits of their capabilities.

"That's where competition drives the best in the community," says Gulick. "It gives you a quantifiable way to see where your skills are and to develop them into strong competencies that enable you to do your job — or work into a new job — faster. Games allow you the emergence that you don't necessarily get from on-the-job training or academia."

In cyber game events like Wicked6, participants get to team up with other cyber professionals. Over the course of the competition, they will learn from each other, help each other, and interact with each other to become better team members in real life.

"It takes a good four to five years to become a security professional, for someone coming out of school," Gulick says. "Games help to reduce that greatly. It's the immersion — the being able to see what an attack looks like, to practice the attack, to practice the defense — that gives you an accelerated step up in your career."

Preparation for Cyber Careers
Events like Wicked6 offer a fun way to introduce people to cybersecurity careers. Using a game format can get young people excited about cyber, with its focus on red teaming and blue teaming. And it shows young female hackers that they can shine in the world of cybersecurity.

The games are challenging and fun, but they also give participants a consumable way to think about cybersecurity.

Cybersecurity can be intimidating for a lot of folks, says Ann Johnson, corporate vice president at Microsoft and the keynote speaker for Wicked6. Cyber games engage the next generation of corporate employees and hackers on a platform they are familiar with: gaming. And it's done in a way that will prepare them for a future career.

"These are real simulations," says Johnson. "The types of things we simulate in cyber games are things they'll see in real environments, whether it is real attacks or red/blue team exercises. We're giving them practical, hands-on experience that they can take into the workforce to enhance their careers."

Traditional cybersecurity training has been very classroom- and certificate-driven. Cyber games take a new approach designed to introduce a new audience to cyber careers and to teach them in a way they are used to learning.

"Yes, we need to continue with those other types of training," says Johnson, "but this an enhancement and will get to a new audience. It will generate that fun and excitement for those who want to continue in the career because they see it in a way that makes them interested."