I have always been fascinated by computer-based games, from early Atari games to text-based turn-based games like Zork. However, in college, I discovered a new world of gaming: multiplayer games connected through the internet. In 1991, Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs) started becoming popular during the early deployments of the "internet." At that time, it was a collection of universities linked together in network chains across the country and even the globe. 

Over the years, I've continued to explore the intersection of gaming, technology and human behavior, and I'm excited to share what I've learned with you. In short, my experience with MUDs showed me the power of networked games to facilitate communication, bring people together and create new forms of social interaction.

MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) were role-playing adventures where players communicated solely through text, using ANSI color coding to add excitement to battle statistics and critical hits. I grew less interested in playing MUDs and more drawn to creating them, building entire fantasy worlds from scratch. One of my earliest collaborative creations was a game called 3 Kingdoms, which still exists today. 

I quickly realized that the immersive experience of MUDs could "lock in" players and capture their attention, making it a potent tool for engaging users and keeping them engaged over time. The thrill of reaching the next level, acquiring a coveted trinket or defeating a major boss unfolded like an evolving storyline, allowing players to act out a book they read and determine its outcome. In short, MUDs had the power to captivate users with their immersive experience, creating addictive and engaging games that kept players coming back for more.

Game theory vs. gamification

Game theory

Game theory provides a structured approach for analyzing strategic interactions among individuals or entities, known as rational decision-makers, who make choices to maximize their benefits or minimize their losses. These decision-makers, whether they are individuals, companies or countries, engage in scenarios often modeled as games. These games have defined rules and potential outcomes, allowing for the use of mathematical strategies to forecast participants' actions based on their pursuit of the most favorable results. For instance, in cybersecurity, a rational decision-maker could be a hacker deciding whether to attack a system based on the potential gain and the risk of being caught. Game theory's versatility extends across various domains such as economics, where it can predict market behaviors; political science for election strategies; psychology in understanding human interactions; and computer science for algorithm development. 

Game theory aims to understand how rational agents interact and make decisions when faced with conflicts of interest, trade-offs or uncertainties. It provides a way to analyze strategic situations systematically, considering the incentives and motivations of all parties involved. Game theory can predict outcomes, inform decision-making and optimize strategies in various contexts, from negotiating business deals to designing artificial intelligence systems.

Following the insightful exploration of game theory's applications across diverse fields, it's clear that understanding strategic decision-making extends beyond theoretical models into the realm of practical, everyday challenges and solutions. This blend of theory and practical application is vividly brought to life in "Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World" by Jane McGonigal. McGonigal's work illuminates the profound impact of game design principles on solving real-world problems, offering an engaging and optimistic view of how gamification can enhance personal and collective experiences. Her insights complement the theoretical underpinnings of game theory and provide a tangible pathway to applying these concepts in innovative and meaningful ways. For those intrigued by the potential of game theory to inform and transform practices in various domains, McGonigal's "Reality is Broken" is an essential read, serving as both a source of inspiration and an action guide. 

For further reading: McGonigal, Jane. Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. Penguin Press, 2011, offers a comprehensive look at how gamification and game theory principles can address complex challenges and improve the quality of life.


Gamification is the application of game design principles and mechanics to non-game contexts, such as education, marketing or productivity apps. It involves using elements like points, badges, leaderboards, challenges and feedback loops to engage and motivate users to achieve specific goals or behaviors. Gamification often increases user engagement, motivation and loyalty and improves learning outcomes or work performance. 

Gamification aims to create a more engaging and enjoyable user experience by incorporating game-like elements into everyday activities. By providing immediate feedback, setting goals and creating a sense of progress and achievement, gamification can help motivate and incentivize users to take action and stay engaged over time. Gamification has been used in various contexts, from encouraging exercise and healthy habits to improving customer loyalty and employee performance. 

While gamification is not a replacement for traditional game design, it offers a way to apply the principles of game design to non-game contexts to create more engaging and compelling experiences for users.

Beyond fun and games: the serious side of game theory in gaming applications

Fortunately, I quickly realized how players interacted with the challenges in the games I built, which led me to apply game theory principles to the game design process. I asked questions like: 

  • What parts are most engaging for players?
  • How long do they spend on a particular challenge?
  • What can we do to entice players to continue their journey?

By collecting this information and understanding motivations, I could create more engaging and rewarding user experiences. 

At its core, game theory is about understanding how rational agents make decisions in strategic situations. When applied to game design, it can help designers create more immersive, challenging and enjoyable experiences that keep players returning for more. By considering factors like player engagement, motivation and behavior, game designers can optimize elements such as the length, difficulty and rewards of quests, creating games that are not only fun but also intellectually stimulating and rewarding. In short, incorporating game theory principles into game design can help make more engaging and successful games.

Connecting the dots

If the adage that 10,000 hours spent on a topic makes you an expert holds, then I am certainly qualified. Over the years, I have dedicated countless days (days in this context are directly attributed to the total logged-in time of a particular character) to analyzing and studying games, making them an integral part of my life. While I may not play various games at any given time, I enjoy exploring interactive games with role-playing elements. 

As an early adopter of Ultima Online (UO), World of Warcraft (WoW) and EVE, I have had the opportunity to experience some of the most groundbreaking and innovative games in the industry. However, I've discovered that my true passion lies in creating the game itself – designing challenges and puzzles that engage and delight players. 

By studying game theory principles and analyzing player behavior, I have developed a deep understanding of what makes a game successful and engaging. Whether crafting an immersive storyline or designing complex challenges, my goal is to create games that are fun, intellectually stimulating and rewarding for players. Through careful planning and analysis, I strive to create game experiences that keep players engaged and motivated, encouraging them to explore and discover all the game offers.

Eyes on the prize

When making assessments in the realm of cybersecurity, using game theory as a framework to determine potential attack vectors is a sound methodology. Cyber operations technical resources, such as HR systems and other core business functions, can identify which targets within their environments are most likely to be attacked. By taking a few moments to reflect on what your organization's "Crown Jewels" might be, you can apply game theory principles to predict attackers' behavior and strengthen your defenses. 

When using game theory to attack vectors, it is essential to consider both the value of the targets and what attackers stand to gain from attacking those targets. By understanding these incentives, defensive teams can identify where secure points should exist and take appropriate actions, such as elevated monitoring, when high-value targets within their organization are identified. 

By analyzing potential outcomes and incentives, game theory provides a framework for predicting attackers' behavior and developing effective defense mechanisms. Organizations can proactively secure their systems and reduce the risk of successful attacks by identifying valuable targets and anticipating attackers' motivations. Whether through network segmentation, access controls or other security measures, game theory can help organizations develop a robust cybersecurity strategy against a wide range of threats.

Cyber war or just a game

How does this apply to a cyber range or cyber games? By conceptualizing game theory in your environment and pushing that structure to a secure Cyber Range, you can understand how to set the critical elements of your deployment into a targeted cyber challenge that emulates real-world attack scenarios. This allows defensive cyber operations teams to practice their skills and remediate vulnerabilities in a safe and controlled environment while also enabling them to predict how a cyber attacker might modify their tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) to continue driving toward their objectives. 

Creating game environments is not futile; it allows defenders to learn, practice their skills and validate their assumptions about potential threats. By emulating realistic adversaries and real-world attack scenarios, cyber games become an arena for defenders to flex their rational decision-making skills and test their defenses against a range of potential attacks. 

Through careful design and analysis, game theory can create challenging and engaging cybersecurity environments that enable defenders to develop their skills, test new strategies and identify system vulnerabilities. By anticipating attackers' behavior and developing proactive defense mechanisms, organizations can reduce the risk of successful attacks and strengthen their overall security posture. Whether through training exercises, simulations or other cybersecurity games, game theory provides a framework for predicting attackers' behavior and developing effective defense mechanisms robust against a wide range of potential threats.

The end game

Regarding cybersecurity, game theory can be a powerful tool for predicting and defending against potential attacks. By understanding the incentives and behaviors of attackers, organizations can proactively secure their systems and reduce the risk of successful attacks. 

In this blog post, I've proposed how game theory can be used in different areas of cybersecurity, from identifying valuable targets to designing effective defense mechanisms. Specifically, I discussed:

  • How game theory can help predict attackers' behavior by analyzing potential outcomes and incentives.
  • How game theory can be used to identify the most likely targets within an organization's environment, such as HR systems and other core business functions.
  • How cyber ranges and games can benefit from game theory principles, enabling defenders to practice their skills, test new strategies and validate their assumptions about potential threats.

By taking a proactive approach to cybersecurity and using game theory to anticipate attackers' behavior, organizations can develop comprehensive defense mechanisms that are resistant against a wide range of potential threats. Whether it's through network segmentation, access controls or other security measures, game theory provides a framework for predicting attackers' behavior and developing effective defense mechanisms that enable defenders to flex their rational decision-making skills and reduce the risk of successful attacks.

Game theory and the application of gamification is a valuable tool in the cybersecurity arsenal, enabling organizations to anticipate attackers' behavior and develop proactive defense mechanisms that are tailored to their unique needs and environments. By understanding the value of potential targets and the incentives of potential attackers, defenders can create challenging and engaging cybersecurity games that enable them to learn, practice their skills, and validate their assumptions about potential threats. Whether you're a CISO, security analyst, or just interested in cybersecurity, incorporating game theory principles into your defense mechanisms can help you stay ahead of the curve and reduce the risk of successful attacks, while simultaneously advancing the skill and improving the response of cyber defenders.

This will introduce a series using game theory and gamification in cybersecurity testing and evaluation.  Up next:  Hacker mentality and goals for breach and attack.