Cybersecurity Meets Gamification at CTF Competitions

So you think you understand cybersecurity? You’ve got a team of cybersecurity experts that work with you daily and you believe in them. How sure are you that they are the best? Have you ever wondered how strong their cyber kung fu is — or your own, for that matter — against the pressurized, melting pot environment of the capture-the-flag (CTF) cyber arena?

CTF Competitions: More Than a Game

CTF is a game, but it’s a serious game. It has two main formats, often referred to as Jeopardy and attack/defense. Personally, I prefer the Jeopardy challenges. These come in many variants, and they can be fun and lighthearted or hard-hitting and technically difficult.

The main attraction of the Jeopardy style is the opportunity to challenge the audience. With such a broad scope of possible attack scenarios available to the creator, the inventiveness of the Jeopardy challenge is limited only by the author’s imagination and skill set.

But why points? Why challenges? The purpose of CTF competitions are to simulate real-world scenarios across a gamified platform, which is complete with a mechanism for awarding points. This is typically based on speed to solve, difficulty or some combination of the two. The scores for all challenges solved in a CTF are combined to determine the winner.

CTFs are typically team-based, and teams vary in size. My preference is limit teams to four players, which allows for a more even spread of activities and work. It tests communication, teamwork and a range of other soft skills. With the right mix, a team can really excel.

Catch the Bug

There are many CTF competitions, possibly even in your local community. I got into CTFs around seven years ago while attending security conferences and listening to talks. While listening to a rather boring session, I discovered a CTF available online. I decided to try it to kill 30 minutes. Eight hours later, I had caught the bug. Although I performed very poorly at first, I met some great people and exchanged skills. We eventually formed a team, had some success and started running our own CTF competitions.

In the past, we’ve delivered CTF competitions for the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) community. We are currently working on an event for the Irish Reporting and Information Security Service (IRISS) in Dublin. Additionally, IBM recently opened its own cyber range in Boston — the Disneyland of cyber kung fu tests. Check out this video to learn more.

As a CTF organizer, I am often asked what the barrier to entry is. My honest answer is that attitude is the most critical factor. Get your mindset right, and the skills will follow.

Read the X-Force Report: The Role of CTF Exercises in Security Incident Response Planning

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Jason Flood

CTO of Security Gamification and Modeling, IBM

Breaker of insecure systems, builder of secure systems.