In the Right Hands, This Game Teaches Kids About Cybersecurity

Posted May 13th, 2016 at 10:52 am (UTC-5)
1 comment

When Matt Trobbiani created Hacknet, it was intended as a game, no more, no less — until he discovered it was being used to train cyber warfare teams. Now, he is testing educational versions of the game to teach school kids and would-be sleuths about cybersecurity.

It started out at a game-jam competition as a prototype for a terminal simulator. There are no protagonists or roles to play. Players are left one-on-one with a computer terminal to puzzle out the story of a deceased hacker whose death may or may not have been an accident. They have to stealthily tunnel their way through the computer system and uncover clues, or lacking the skill, alert security to their intrusion and subsequent failure.

In the process, they learn about the Linux programming language, terminal commands, and the power of hacking tools and techniques.

A screenshot from the game, 'Hacknet' shows a message that players read to get hints about targeted systems available missions. The design is intended to replicate message boards linked to anonymous hackers. (Matt Trobbiani)

A screenshot from the game, ‘Hacknet’ shows a message that players read to glean hints about targeted systems and available missions. The design is intended to replicate message boards linked to anonymous hackers. (Matt Trobbiani)

When Trobbiani built the core of the game during the competition, he had no intention of producing an educational product. As it turned out, that effort, “combined with the two-and-a-half-year process of refinement and experimentation” to finish the game, “brought something different and important to the project,” he said in an email.

But the game took a U-turn after Trobbiani ran into U.S. Pacific Command security experts and discovered they were using it to train their cyber warfare teams.

That’s how MET Professional Academy instructor Martin Bencic first heard about it. When he met with cyber warfare instructors, though, who were also using it, he was “cautiously leery of students using a game.”

After trying it out himself, he found it to be a “tremendous resource to test students’ ability to infiltrate networks” and give them the “same tools that the bad guys use in a safe environment.”

“Many of the tools are intrusive and will generate an exorbitant amount of traffic and noise across a traditional network,” he said in an email. “I could only tell students what would take place in a network setting if these tools were deployed. This pales in comparison to actually performing the tasks. Students use actual UNIX commands similar to those in Kali Linux, without bringing down our district network in the process.”

Another screenshot from shows hacking activity from the game 'Hacknet.' (Matt Trobbiani)

Another screenshot shows hacking and system-infiltration activity from the game ‘Hacknet.’ (Matt Trobbiani)

Blogger and entrepreneur Mentor Palokaj has also used the game to teach 16-year-old to 22-year-old students basic terminal commands. But Bencic notes that Hacknet provides would-be security experts with foundational skills to help them pursue cybersecurity careers, which are in high demand.

“Students must be able to apply both technical and ethical decision-making in very real world scenarios,” he said. “The program is immersive and requires increased speed and retention of the complexity associated with cybersecurity. It provides future network administrators with insights that are not possible in a traditional classroom setting.”

Given the interest in using Hacknet for training and education, Trobbiani is currently testing educational versions in schools around the world to ensure “the right approach and structure for effective classroom use,” he said.

“It is imperative to provide as [many] hands-on opportunities for students to show they have the skills needed to protect our reliance on the Internet,” Bencic underscored.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

One response to “In the Right Hands, This Game Teaches Kids About Cybersecurity”

  1. Brandon Dickens says:

    Hello, I’m one of the student from the MET Professional Academy that completed Hacknet. The experience with Hacknet was different, I didn’t see it as a game, and I saw it as a learning tool from the beginning. It gave a good introduction to hacking, not the kind people see in the movies but you used real commands to start up nmap to probe the system and real tools used in the Cybersecurity world. It had a very interesting storyline of you being trained by a hacking community to take down Hacknet. It was very unique from the different storyline and the ways you acquired the tools to get into a system. This is a good learning tool because it gives an introduction to Linux and hacking, and it really did help me get down the different nmap commands for probing and the port numbers correlated with the internet protocol associated with it. It introduced me to a wide range of skills that I will need in cybersecurity. It was a great learning tool to use while taking my Security+ class.

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