Biography: Boyan Bonchev, born 1965, engineer in computing equipment from the Technical University in Sofia (1988), a PhD of the Coordination Center on Information and Computing Equipment with the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (1993), Associate Professor (2001) and Professor (2012) with the Faculty of Mathematics and Informatics at Sofia University St. Kliment Ohridski. He has worked as a software engineer and project manager with different companies and other organizations in Portugal, Spain, Italy and Bulgaria. Founder and Manager of the software companies Bonea (2001) and Aemon (2005). Participant and manager of national and European projects in the sphere of adaptive platforms for technology-assisted learning, serious video games and the semantic Web. Lecturer in different international conferences; author of more than 120 academic publications.
VZ: Professor Bonchev, how did you decide to work with computer educational games?
BB: Technically, I did not make a decision, but it happened rather naturally and gradually, in the course of different activities related to the making of video games. As a student, I created some sports-related video games for the Pravets 16 and IBM PC where one could play table tennis against the computer or against another player. As a doctoral student I developed simulation games for keeping the balance between different animal species in their natural habitats. Later in 2001 under my management, the company Rila Solutions created the Shiver role-play adventure game – for browsers, mobile and SMS platforms. This game was played in Spain by thousands of players simultaneously. In 2004-2006, within the European project PRIME (Providing Real Integration in Multi-disciplinary Environments) we created a serious game with a virtual business environment for studying the lifespan of production processes. Within the project ADOPTA (ADaptive technOlogy-enhanced Platform for eduTAinment) in 2009-2012, we integrated learning video games into adaptive e-learning. This gave rise to the idea of creating models of adaptive serious games within the project ADAPTIMES (ADAPTIve player-centric serious video gaMES), based on using cognitive abilities, psycho-emotional processes and the gaming style of individual players. At the same time, within the project RAGE (Realising an Applied Gaming Ecosystem) we developed separate software components to be integrated into serious video games, which encouraged us to start work on a platform for generating video games under the project APOGEE (smArt adaPtive videO GamEs for Education).
VZ: What in your opinion is the optimal number of team experts in order for a modern, useful and attractive learning game to be created?
BB: Educational games and serious games in general continue to lag significantly behind entertainment games in terms of realism, attractiveness and interactivity. If we want to bridge that gap, then the team of an educational game must enlist the types of specialists needed to create commercial entertaining games, such as game and interface designers, game and level developers, game content designers (text, graphics), audio and video programmers and testers. In addition, the team of an educational game is necessary to include specialists in the relevant field of study, as well as educators and psychologists. Unfortunately, such an optimal composition of the team of specialists for creating more attractive educational games is practically not attainable mainly due to financial and time constraints. And last but not least – such a team should guide the process of creating educational games to the needs and expectations of players. To this end, the team should collaborate with future players on the game being developed and the game development process itself should be player-oriented, not designer-oriented.
VZ: Could you enumerate the advantages that the digital education process has over analog and non-game educational approaches?
BB: Computer games-based learning has a number of proven advantages over non-game educational approaches. These benefits are based on the nature of this learning process. Like the so-called ‘learning by doing’ approach it allows experiments to be conducted and learning tasks solved in virtual worlds close to reality. This proximity, along with the interactivity and play elements of the learning process, helps to increase students‘ motivation and engagement. Learning through digital games can be done in the classroom or remotely, and in both cases students can progress at their own pace, making learning a personalized experience. In addition, it is advisable that educational games themselves have learning content tailored to the needs and interests of the individual learner, as well as adaptive-changing difficulty depending on the learner’s achievement, emotional state and / or learning style. However, despite its proven benefits, computer-based training is not able to replace traditional training approaches and should be applied in parallel to them.
VZ: How can digital learning games assist the development of information literacy in contemporary society?
BB: Thanks to its advanced interactivity and the multimedia interfaces used, modern educational digital games convey facts and complex concepts in an accessible and engaging way. This develops in those who acquire new knowledge through in-game training, problem solving skills, creativity, teamwork and visual-spatial skills. Surveys in recent years have eloquently indicated that both students and teachers have a definite positive attitude towards using video games for training in order to better understand and memorize learning material, conduct experiments in the game, solve case studies, receive feedback and additional information, self-study opportunities and developing ICT skills. In this way, the implementation of game-based learning naturally helps to create digital literacy for students.
VZ: How far are we, in regional, European and global terms, from creating an accredited education system based largely on digitized gaming approaches?
BB: Unfortunately, in our country as well as in the world, we are far from establishing an accredited educational system for conducting and evaluating training based on game approaches. A number of national projects have been implemented in recent years for the development of electronic forms of distance learning in various professional fields, which speaks of the limitations of the existing since 2004 Regulation on the state requirements for the organization of distance learning in higher education. Although distance learning has been talked about for decades, it is still limited in our country‘s universities, as part of accredited curricula for distance-learning. Therefore, it is difficult to predict how long it would take to create an accredited educational framework based on digital gaming approaches.
VZ: How far do you think the lack of interest on the part of big entertainment gaming companies in the matter will affect the issue and why is it so?
BB: The interest of large entertainment gaming companies in educational video games has always been very weak, and has been virtually absent since the 2007 crisis. This is because of the specifics of creating and distributing serious (in particular educational) video games whose business model is very different from that of entertainment games. Entertainment video games have a much larger and more diverse audience than educational games. They are usually custom-made by a company or an institution that needs such a game. This drastically limits the budget for such a game, which is usually tens and hundreds of times smaller than today‘s entertainment games. Serious games are not created for sale by distributors, retailers or directly through the game publisher‘s website, but are primarily used for training within the organization that has commissioned the game. Additionally, the entertainment games market develops secondary content markets to these games (game setups, skins, audio, etc.), which are often more profitable than the game itself. Thus, the large entertainment game creation and distribution industry (including gambling and bidding) does not share common ground with educational video game developing organizations. In addition to a significantly lower budget and hence lower attractiveness, serious games require the involvement of educators, tutors and subject matter experts, who can’t be found in a modern game creation studio. All this, as well as some other particular reasons, determine the lack of a variety of educational video games and their very limited use for teaching students.
VZ: Do you think that the over-digitization of our daily lives, including educational processes, can have negative effects on the individual and society?
BB: The development and widespread distribution of computer games from the 1970s to the present day have led to another revolution in the development of electronic media after the radio, the cinema, the television and the Internet. More and more of our personal and professional lives have started to be connected with the digital exchange of information, which has both positive and negative consequences for the individual and society. Less direct communication between people is just one of them, but it can lead to greater introversion and a sense of loneliness, de–socialization and de-integration of the individual from society. For many processes, direct communication cannot be completely replaced by communication through electronic media, which modern people have increasingly begun to understand.
VZ: Tell us something more about the idea and the results of your Apogee Project.
BB: The idea for the scientific project Apogee (http://apogee.online/) came as a response to the lack of diverse educational video games in schools and universities, as well as the need for a software platform for the creation of such games. Such a platform would be usable if it made it possible for educational video games to be created not so much by programmers but rather by educational professionals who best know what educational and game content these games should have. Additionally, during the implementation of previous research projects, our team has developed models and software components to create customizable and personalized learning games that change the different characteristics of the game depending on the capabilities of the individual player. Last but not least, educational games should offer intelligent virtual characters who can communicate with the player in natural language, meaningfully answering his or her questions regarding the subject matter of the educational game. The idea was to create an open-source software platform for building intelligent and player-customizable games based on 3D video mazes enriched with various mini-games and intelligent virtual players (i.e. smart characters). The first prototype of the platform is ready and is to be validated through practical experiments for constructing educational games with a story from the medieval history of Bulgaria, chosen as socially significant, accessible and interesting to all.
VZ: We would like to ask you to make a brief assessment of our platform: https://www.navigateproject.eu/navigamesearch-tool/
BB: It is with great interest that I follow the published digital games and the results of their evaluation on the webpage of the platform NaviGAMESearcher, which has been developed under the European project NAVIGATE. The platform enables the online search, playing, evaluation and comparison of various video games to develop information literacy competence. The platform currently offers 19 original digital games focused primarily on issues of information literacy and the recognition of fake content. Evaluation and comparison is done using an innovative online approach based on a specially designed, comprehensive framework that presents a competency tree on information literacy and avoiding the use of fake content. All game evaluation results are available online, which makes the platform interesting, usable and handy not only for students in the humanities, but also for professionals in the field of educational video games and video games application in the learning process.