Skip to main content


Log in

Increasing Cybersecurity Career Interest through Playable Case Studies

  • Original Paper
  • Published:
TechTrends Aims and scope Submit manuscript


In this paper we introduce an approach to cybersecurity education and helping students develop professional understanding in the form of a Playable Case Study (PCS), a form of educational simulation that draws on affordances of the broader educational simulation genre, case study instruction, and educational Alternate Reality Games (or ARGs). A PCS is an interactive simulation that allows students to “play” through an authentic scenario (case study) as a member of a professional team. We report our findings over a multi-year study of a PCS called Cybermatics, with data from 111 students from two different U.S. universities who interacted with the PCS. Cybermatics increased student understanding about certain key aspects of professional cybersecurity work, improved their confidence in being able to successfully apply certain skills associated with cybersecurity, and increased about half of the students’ interest in pursuing a cybersecurity career. Students also reported a number of reasons why their perceptions changed in these areas (both positive and negative). We also discuss design tensions we experienced in our process that might be encountered by others when creating simulations like a PCS, as they attempt to balance the authenticity of designed learning experiences while also sufficiently scaffolding them for newcomers who have little background in a discipline.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.

Instant access to the full article PDF.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7
Fig. 8

Similar content being viewed by others


  • Adams, M., & Makramalla, M. (2015). Cybersecurity skills training: An attacker-centric gamified approach. Technology Innovation Management Review, 5(1), 5–14.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Baker, M. (2016). Striving for effective cyber workforce development. Retrieved from Accessed 22 Jan 2021.

  • Bashir, M., Wee, C., Memon, N., & Guo, B. (2017). Profiling cybersecurity competition participants: Self-efficacy, decision-making and interests predict effectiveness of competitions as a recruitment tool. Computers & Security, 65, 153–165.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Battles, J., Glenn, V., & Shedd, L. (2011). Rethinking the library game: Creating an alternate reality with social media. Journal of Web Librarianship, 5(2), 114–131.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bonsignore, E., Hansen, D., Kraus, K., Visconti, A., Ahn, J., & Druin, A. (2013, June). Playing for real: designing alternate reality games for teenagers in learning contexts. In Proceedings of the 12th International Conference on Interaction Design and Children (pp. 237–246). New York, NY: ACM.

  • Bustos, R. A. (2017). Facilitating support of cyber: Toward a new liaison model with cybersecurity education at Augusta. Journal of Business & Finance Librarianship, 22(1), 23–31.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Center for Cyber Safety Education, (ISC)2, Booz Allen Hamilton, Alta Associates, & Frost & Sullivan. (2017). 2017 Global information security workforce study benchmarking workforce capacity and response to cyber risk. Retrieved from Accessed 22 Jan 2021.

  • Chesler, N. C., Ruis, A. R., Collier, W., Swiecki, Z., Arastoopour, G., & Shaffer, D. W. (2015). A novel paradigm for engineering education: Virtual internships with individualized mentoring and assessment of engineering thinking. Journal of Biomechanical Engineering, 137(2), 1–8.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cheung, R. S., Cohen, J. P., Lo, H. Z., Elia, F., & Carrillo-marquez, V. (2012). Effectiveness of cybersecurity competitions. In Proceedings of the International Conference on Security and Management (SAM) (p. 1).

  • Cornel, C., Cornel, C. M., Rowe, D. C., & Moses, S. (2016, June). A cybersecurity camp for girls. In Conference for the American Society for Engineering Education.Washington, DC: ASEE.

  • Cornel, C. J., Rowe, D. C., & Cornel, C. M. (2017). Starships and cybersecurity: Teaching security concepts through immersive gaming experiences. Proceedings of the 18th Annual Conference on Information Technology Education - SIGITE, 17, 27–32.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Flushman, T., Gondree, M., Peterson, Z. N. (2015, August). This is not a game: Early observations on using alternate reality games for teaching security concepts to first-year undergraduates. In 8th Workshop on Cyber Security Experimentation and Test ({CSET} 15). Berkley, CA: USENIX.

  • Gavas, E., & Memon, N. (2012). Winning cybersecurity one challenge at a time. IEEE Security & Privacy, 10(4), 75–79.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Giannakas, F., Kambourakis, G., & Gritzalis, S. (2015, November). CyberAware: A mobile game-based app for cybersecurity education and awareness. In 2015 International Conference on Interactive Mobile Communication Technologies and Learning (IMCL) (pp. 54–58). New York, NY: IEEE.

  • Gibbons, A. S. (2001). Model-centered instruction. Journal of Structural Learning and Intelligent Systems, 14, 511–540.

    Google Scholar 

  • Giboney, J., Hansen, D. L., Johnson, T., Winters, D., McDonald, J. K., Balzotti, J., & Bonsignore, E. (2019, January). Theory of experiential career exploration technology (TECET): Increasing cybersecurity career interest through playable case studies. 52nd Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. Wailea, HI: HICSS.

  • Graham, M. J., Frederick, J., Byars-Winston, A., Hunter, A.-B., & Handelsman, J. (2013). Increasing persistence of college students in STEM. Science, 341(6153), 1455–1456.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Gredler, M. E. (2004). Games and simulations and their relationship to learning. In D. H. Jonassen (Ed.), Handbook of research on educational communications and technology (2nd ed., pp. 571–582). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hansen, D. L., Balzotti, J., Fine, L., & Ebeling, D. (2017, January). Microcore: A playable case study for improving adolescents’ argumentative writing in a workplace context. 50th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. Waikoloa Village, HI: HICSS.

  • Heitzmann, R. (2008). Case study instruction in teacher education: Opportunity to develop students’ critical thinking, school smarts and decision making. Education, 128(4), 523–542.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hevner, A. R., March, S. T., Park, J., & Ram, S. (2004). Design science in information systems research. MIS Quarterly, 28(1), 75–105.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Holm, S. (1979). A simple sequentially rejective multiple test procedure. Scandinavian Journal of Statistics, 6(2), 65–70.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jagoda, P., Gilliam, M., McDonald, P., & Russell, C. (2015). Worlding through play: Alternate reality games, large-scale learning, and The Source. American Journal of Play, 8(1), 74.

    Google Scholar 

  • Jethwani, M. M., Memon, N., Seo, W., & Richer, A. (2017). “I can actually be a super sleuth”: Promising practices for engaging adolescent girls in cybersecurity education. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 55(1), 3–25.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Johnston, J. D., Massey, A. P., & Marker-Hoffman, R. L. (2012). Using an alternate reality game to increase physical activity and decrease obesity risk of college students. Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology, 6(4), 828–838.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Katsantonis, M., Fouliras, P., Mavridis, I., & (2017, April). Conceptual analysis of cyber security education based on live competitions. In,. (2017). IEEE Global Engineering Education Conference (EDUCON) (pp. 771–779). New York, NY: IEEE.

  • Kay, D. J., Pudas, T. J., & Young, B. (2012). Preparing the pipeline: The U.S. cyber workforce for the future. Defense Horizons, 72(August), 1–16.

    Google Scholar 

  • Kolb, A. Y., & Kolb, D. A. (2014). Learning styles and learning spaces: Enhancing experiential learning in higher education. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 4(2), 193–212.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and developmen. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  • LeClair, J., & Pheils, D. (2016). Women in cybersecurity. Albany: NY: Excelsior College.

  • McDonald, J. K., Hansen, D. L., Balzotti, J., Tanner, J., Winters, D., Giboney, J., & Bonsignore, E. (2019, January). Designing authentic cybersecurity learning experiences: Lessons from the Cybermatics playable case study. Proceedings of the 52nd Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, 6, 2507–2516. Wailea, HI: HICSS.

  • McGettrick, A., Cassel, L. N., Dark, M., Hawthorne, E. K., & Impagliazzo, J. (2014, March). Toward curricular guidelines for cybersecurity. In Proceedings of the 45th ACM technical symposium on Computer science education (pp. 81–82). New York, NY: SIGCSE.

  • Nagarajan, A., Allbeck, J. M., Sood, A., & Janssen, T. L. (2012, May). Exploring game design for cybersecurity training. In 2012 IEEE International Conference on Cyber Technology in Automation, Control, and Intelligent Systems (CYBER) (pp. 256–262). New York, NY: IEEE.

  • Niemeyer, G., Garcia, A., & Naima, R. (2009, October). Black cloud: patterns towards da future. In Proceedings of the 17th ACM International Conference on Multimedia (pp. 1073–1082). New York, NY: ACM.

  • Nunamaker Jr., J. F., & Briggs, R. O. (2011). Toward a broader vision for information systems. Transactions on Management Information Systems, 2(4) 20, 1–20.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Peffers, K., Tuunanen, T., Rothenberger, M. A., & Chatterjee, S. (2007). A design science research methodology for information systems research. Journal of Management Information Systems, 24(3), 45–77.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Pellicone, A., Bonsignore, E., Kaczmarek, K., Kraus, K., Ahn, J., & Hansen, D. (2017). Alternate reality games for learning: A frame by frame analysis. Alternate Realities Games and the Cusp of Digital Gameplay, 5, 78.

    Google Scholar 

  • Raj, R. K., & Parrish, A. (2018). Towards standards in undergraduate cybersecurity education in 2018. Computer, 51(2), 72–75.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Raytheon (2016). Securing our future: Closing the cybersecurity talent gap. Sterling, VA: Raytheon Company. Retrieved from Accessed 22 Jan 2021.

  • Rowland, P., Podhradsky, A., & Plucker, S. (2018, January). CybHER: A Method for Empowering, Motivating, Educating and Anchoring Girls to a Cybersecurity Career Path. In Proceedings of the 51st Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (pp. 3727–3735). Waikoloa Village, HI: HICSS.

  • Schank, R. C. (1994). Goal-based scenarios: A radical look at education. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 3(4), 429–453.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Shackelford, S. J., Proia, A. A., Martell, B., & Craig, A. N. (2015). Toward a global cybersecurity standard of care?: Exploring the implications of the 2014 NIST Cybersecurity framework on shaping reasonable national and international cybersecurity practices. Texas International Law Journal, 50(2), 303–354.

    Google Scholar 

  • Shaffer, D. W. (2004). Pedagogical praxis: The professions as models for postindustrial education. Teachers College Record, 106(7), 1401–1421.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Shaffer, D. W. (2005). Epistemic games. Innovate: Journal of Online Education, 1(6), 2.

    Google Scholar 

  • Shumba, R., Ferguson-Boucher, K., Sweedyk, E., Taylor, C., Franklin, G., Turner, C., ... & Hall, L. (2013, June). Cybersecurity, women and minorities: findings and recommendations from a preliminary investigation. In Proceedings of the ITiCSE working group reports conference on Innovation and technology in computer science education-working group reports (pp. 1–14). New York, NY: ACM.

  • Tims, H. E., Turner, G. E., Corbett, K., Deemer, E. D., & Mhire, J. (2014). Cyber value and interest development: Assessment of a STEM career intervention for high school students. Electronic Journal of Science Education, 18(1), 1–15.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tobey, D. H., Pusey, P., & Burley, D. L. (2014). Engaging learners in cybersecurity careers: Lessons from the launch of the national cyber league. ACM Inroads, 5(1), 53–56.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Vogel, R. (2016). Closing the cybersecurity skills gap. Salus Journal, 4(2), 32–46.

    Google Scholar 

  • Werther, J., Zhivich, M., Leek, T., & Zeldovich, N. (2011). Experiences in cyber security education: The MIT Lincoln Laboratory capture-the-flag exercise. In Proceedings of the 4th conference on Cyber Security Experimentation and Test (p. 12). New York, NY: ACM.

  • Yang, S. C., & Wen, B. (2017). Toward a cybersecurity curriculum model for undergraduate business schools: A survey of AACSB-accredited institutions in the United States. Journal of Education for Business, 92(1), 1–8.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


Portions of this paper were previously presented at the 52nd Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, and are available in the proceedings of that conference.


Funding for part of this work was provided by NSF grant AISL #1323787.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jason K. McDonald.

Ethics declarations

Declarations of Interest

The authors were employed by the universities under study at the time the research took place.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Additional information

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Giboney, J.S., McDonald, J.K., Balzotti, J. et al. Increasing Cybersecurity Career Interest through Playable Case Studies. TechTrends 65, 496–510 (2021).

Download citation

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: