Our Cybersecurity Gift List Makes Hacking a Part of Holiday Cheer

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If you aren’t cheating …

One of the foundational lessons of cybersecurity is easy to understand: bad people cheat, lie, and steal online. But it is hard to account for in teaching – how do we teach students to think like the bad people they’re learning how to stop? How do we teach them to think like criminals, when they have been conditioned to success in an environment – education – where cheating is a cardinal sin?

In one college-level cybersecurity class, instructors announced their intention to quiz students on the first 100 digits of pi but did not tell them when the quiz would be. Students were expected to cheat their way to passing the test, failing only if they got caught cheating. To the delight of their teachers, all 20 students passed, sneaking various artful solutions into the test without getting caught.

In the Star Trek universe, the Kobayashi Maru training challenge was a no-win situation that only one person ever solved … Captain Kirk … by cheating.

In the Star Trek universe, the Kobayashi Maru training challenge was a no-win situation that only one person ever solved … Captain Kirk … by cheating.

Making a rule of rule-breaking

As in this kind of “Kobayashi Maru” exercise, play can allow “cheating” to be written into the rules of conduct as a good, rather than bad, mode of behavior. We’ve recently observed how gamification has become a central strategy for teaching cybersecurity, not least because it provides a safe space for all kinds of behaviors otherwise proscribed in education. Failing, sharing notes and lessons, and, yes, even cheating all can register differently as features of play than of the classroom.

On to the gifts

That’s why this year’s gift list, focusing on cybersecurity, starts off on the unusual note of recommending activities that reward typically reprehensible conduct, like cheating, lying, and conniving. We hasten to affirm, however, that subsequent items do nurture more elevated, laudable skills, such as analytical acuity, rigorous logic, and keen reasoning. And all, we aver as well, offer healthy doses of good, solid fun.

Games of lying and bluffing

Geared mostly for older kids, a sizeable genre of games calls on players to adopt roles or behaviors that misrepresent their intentions and trick other players as part of winning tactics. Try Coup, Spyfall, or The Resistance, all games that place a premium on artful questions and answers, rewarding deduction and deception on the way to unmasking spies, saboteurs, and sneaks among the ranks of players. All for 13 and up.

Pure-play cybersecurity games

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Hacker is a board game based on coding principles in which players develop and defend “programs” from malicious hackers. 120 challenges, escalating in difficulty, impart programming and reasoning skills. For ages 10 and up, played singly or in teams.

Cybersecurity games are a natural fit for digital platforms.

  • Exapunks and The Swindle are hacking games in which players work back and forth across lines of criminal and lawful behaviors.

  • Opposing the bad guys but still learning from them, players in Cybersecurity Lab from NOVA must defend against increasingly sophisticated cyber attacks by completing a series of challenges employing various cybersecurity skill sets.

  • And in a more educational setting, our friends at Circadence feature Project Ares, a technically sophisticated game that teaches practical cybersecurity skills.

Coding games

A fast-growing segment, coding- and computing-themed games ask kids to use logic and creativity to build “algorithms” that help them win or solve problems.

Cat Crimes uses sequential reasoning to help players finger cats guilty of nefarious, feline-flavored crimes. Fun, catty pictures and clues. For ages 8 and up.

For anyone on Team Feline, Cat Crimes might be the purr-fect gift.

For anyone on Team Feline, Cat Crimes might be the purr-fect gift.

Code & Go Mouse Mania board game teaches coding without screens, as players write “programs” to move a mouse towards cheese wedges distributed around the board. Preferable to the Activity Set version of the same game with a robot mouse, which has had repeated technical problems in our house. For ages 5 and up.

CODE programming game series. Screen-free and unplugged, this series of challenge-based games is a step up from most options in the category. For ages 8 and up.

Matching patterns, solving puzzles

Seeing patterns in apparently random activity and similarities among seemingly disparate phenomena are prized cognitive skills in candidates for careers in cybersecurity. Games and toys abound in this category, with our favorites below.

Kanoodle. It’s a Kanoodle world, and we’re just living in it. The Kanoodle suite of solitaire and two-player games are usually the most fought-over games in the house. Logic and reasoning have never been so fun. For all ages.

All five of the Kanoodle games offers good, smart, reliable fun, for all ages.

All five of the Kanoodle games offers good, smart, reliable fun, for all ages.

Mental Blox. 20 colorful blocks with different shapes, sizes, and “powers” are the center of this challenge-based, design-thinking game. For 5 and up.

Q-bitz and Q-bitz, Jr. Twenty cubes of different pattern and color add up to three different levels of play that test memory and spatial reasoning powers. Simple and addictive. For ages 8 and up, and 3-8, respectively.


These books take varied approaches to introducing principles and practices of cryptography. They are all suitable for kids from late elementary school to high school.

  • Break the Code, Bud Johnson. Funny drawings, a helpful glossary, and clear guidance help teach readers how to make and break six different kinds of codes.

  • Codes, Ciphers, and Secret Writing, Martin Gardner. The next step in cryptography reading features more history and more advanced codes. Martin Gardner was a much-loved writer of scores of popular math and science books.

  • The Cryptoclub: Using Mathematics to Make and Break Secret Codes, Janet Beissinger. Code-breaking is woven into engaging story lines about teenagers breaking codes and learning about the history of cryptography. A teacher’s guide is also available for using this book in classrooms.

  • Comic-BEE. This comic-book style treatment of cybersecurity learning just won “Best Student Learning Aid” from the National Cyberwatch Center.

A winning fall-back option

If you can’t decide on any one of these gift ideas, you can still sneak in the cybersecurity theme with a gift box that presents a puzzle in itself. Puzzle Pod, Jr., requires a gift recipient to crack a three-letter code, using clues you provide, in order to open up a small gift box. The Good Luck Puzzle Box takes some clever thinking to get at the gift inside, though the solution does come along with the gift in the event of excessive frustration.  And the Money Maze Puzzle Box requires solving a 3-D maze before giving access to the cash gift compartment at the center.

Getting to the gift inside is half the fun with a puzzle box.

Getting to the gift inside is half the fun with a puzzle box.

And, finally

With that, we wish all readers the happiest of holiday seasons. Let us know how any of these gift ideas work out for you, or if you have any others to add to the list. May these items be the closest contact you have with anyone thinking or acting like a cybercriminal!

In the spirit of the gift-giving season, we appreciate any sharing you might do with interested friends of colleagues.

Eric Iversen is VP for Learning and Communications at Start Engineering. He has written and spoken widely on engineering education in the K-12 arena. You can write to him about this topic, especially when he gets stuff wrong, at eiversen@start-engineering.com

You can also follow along on Twitter @StartEnginNow.

Brand new for 2018! Our new Cybersecurity Career Guide shows middle and high schoolers what cybersecurity is all about and how they can find the career in the field that’s right for them. Now with a Student Workbook for classroom or afterschool use! A great pair with the recently updated version of our Start Engineering Career Guide.

We’ve also got appealing, fun engineering posters for K-2 and 3-5.

Our books cover the entire PreK-12 range. Get the one that’s right for you at our online shop.