This year’s DEF CON ® 2020 Social Engineering Capture the Flag for Kids (SECTF4Kids) was a landmark event. With the COVID-19 pandemic, DEF CON ® announced that it would be going completely virtual. This meant we had to tackle the SECTF4Kids in a completely new environment. We would need to apply the same principles and encourage the same ideals, without ever coming face-to-face with our contestants. At the same time, we wanted to achieve our goal for the DEF CON® kids… preparing them for the future.
Every year, since 2011 we’ve held an SECTF4Kids at DEF CON®. The SECTF4Kids encourages critical thinking and communication skills for kids ages 6-12. We do this by creating puzzles and ciphers that are fun and challenging for them. The kids learn how to do research, or open source intelligence (OSINT) gathering. DEF CON® kids who participate in our SECTF4Kids also learn how to find creative solutions to complex problems. We then bring all these skills together and teach the kids how to apply them to social engineering. And of course, to use them for good. However, could we do all of this virtually? How could we use an online environment and keep up our company motto, “leave them feeling better for having met you?” We turned to one of the most popular games on the planet: Minecraft.
How We Built It
Using the platform of Minecraft, we built a server in which the kids, our contestants, could solve various puzzles made in the game. To this end, we recruited a clever and hardworking team: Ellie, aka Hydra, Mattie, and Emily. For weeks this incredible team fleshed out and tested our ideas; transforming them into a beautiful and functional world full of puzzles to decipher. They made the world into a town with a library, restaurant, general store, town hall, and more. Each with their own themed puzzle!
The puzzles covered a number of different categories. We had mazes and ciphers for the kids to solve and explore. As well as logic puzzles and riddles to be worked out and completed. There were also encoded lever-puzzles that required our contestants to first find the answer to a question we posed on the internet. Next, they had to translate that answer to a numbered phrase (yes, we taught them to use T9) that they then input by activating the right levers. All in all, a grand variety of different objectives to complete, and all within an hour.
These puzzles all had a goal at the end of them. Whether it was a key to unlocking a different puzzle, or a resource to use in the final leg of our competition. The cart launch.
The Cart Launch
The kids would build a device to launch a minecart along a track of their own design! To do so, they would need to use critical thinking and find creative solutions. They would also need to see how to combine the resources we provided along with the puzzle rewards they earned. And of course, there was the reward to give them incentive. The kid who could launch their cart the farthest wins.
So, how did these puzzles teach valuable skills to the DEF CON® kids preparing them for the future? Let’s take a look.
Critical Thinking and Active Reading
We at Social-Engineer define someone who is a critical thinker, as one who gathers and assesses relevant information and comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions. They also think open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, while recognizing and assessing their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences. This kind of reasoning and thinking is more and more important every day, as Psychology Today pointed out. Right now, we are at an apex of information, a turning point in how we process information. And this newest generation is under a deluge of differing ideas, facts, and opinions all the time.
To help our DEF CON® kids develop critical thinking, several of our puzzles encouraged the kids to examine what they’d seen before, and then compare it with the information they now had. We wanted them to not only read and understand the information, but to think critically and apply it to their environment. For some puzzles, only one kid at a time could read the hints, which forced them to communicate clearly and share their understanding. For instance, in our town we had a “Hospital.” The goal of the hospital puzzle was to get into a sealed room called the “Isolation Ward.” In order to get into it, the teams needed at least one kid downstairs, explaining what they saw to the other upstairs and comparing the notes they received. Only by working together could they open the door and solve the puzzle.
These kinds of puzzles give them exercises so that they can take everything they see, and sort it out for themselves. They teach kids them to critically think and understand what they read.
Other puzzles required them to connect simple circuits and solve problems in a more linear way. “Reach for the Sky” was one such puzzle that required them to follow two separate linear paths in order to reach their goal…a floating chest.
On each path was a chest floating in the air far out of reach, and in order to get to it they needed to activate the right levers in the correct order to move obstacles out of their way. They then needed to use resources dropped by the lever’s actions to reach another part of the puzzle. This prize gave them a lever that allowed them to activate a piston-platform that would let them just reach where they wanted to go by riding the pistons activated by a teammate. But to climb up to that platform, they needed to use a dropped ladder that they had received earlier, break a cake using another lever, and have their teammates boost them up using levers on the ground. Got all that?
These puzzles required the contestants to take in all the information present in their environment, to sort it, and to connect where each piece mattered. They learned to keep their objective in mind and to follow through on each step to reach their goal.
Creativity is a huge part of being successful in any field or industry. And it’s a trait that can be trained. So, on the other side of things, we also encourage kids to seek out creative solutions to their goals. In view of this, we selected puzzles that would train the kids to find creative solutions, and we rewarded them for it.
This year saw an unprecedented surge in that. Especially in regard to the final Minecart launch. They saved pieces of puzzles and they used their environment. They also found ways around shortages of materials and teammates at times.
This is a topic that many feel is extremely important right now. The newest generation spend very little time in face-to-face communication. As a result, communication skills are falling by the wayside.There are however ways to fight that, among them being…games. While this may seem backwards to the goal, it’s a key component of modern culture.
Commonly, individual skill and selfish play is rewarded. It’s encouraged by game mechanics, point systems, and even the communities themselves. Professional-level teams in physical or esports realize however that team-based communication is one of the most important factors in any game. For instance, a player may show great skill at an activity or game, but become frustrated and lose despite their skill. Conversely, a player who can get their team to work together, focus on the overarching goal, and keep everyone calm and focused…that’s a player who will win. Those same skills can then be applied in the work force and in life, allowing them to succeed.
Teamwork was the point of many of our puzzles. Most puzzles required at least two kids to communicate, or work together. One puzzle required all three kids to employ every aspect mentioned here at the same time. Each player had different objectives to reach the same goal. Two solved different puzzles to activate moveable platforms, so that the third could navigate, platform, or “parkour” their way to the end goal. Doing so required that they think through their resources logically and creatively. So that they could solve the mechanics and puzzles, as well as communicate when to move and when to pause.
DEF CON® Kids — Feel Better for Having Played with Us
The DEF CON® SECTF4Kids strives for a singular goal: Security Through Education. By teaching kids these necessary skills in fun ways, we are preparing them for the future. We’re teaching them how to solve problems, embrace creative solutions, and, above all, leave people feeling better for having met them. Now, we’re releasing the server files used to make this world, so that every kid, parent, and kid-at-heart can try these simple puzzles for themselves and with friends. We hope that everyone can enjoy these activities, and that we leave you feeling better for having played with us. If you’re interested in joining us next time, keep an eye out on for the announcement from us on Twitter! We hope to see you then!
Reading about this competition not enough? Check out a video we took of the live event below.
Still not enough? You can play the entire Minecraft world. Find the world download and instructions here!