Posted in Communicating with the World (Academic), Quiet Stories

Embracing Maori Culture Within Games

Although I am not Maori myself, it is a big part of my home countries culture, and so I wanted to dissect it’s place in the world of video games. Both historically and in the future.

Maori culture is ingrained in Kiwi culture. Whether you’re Maori by blood, European or an immigrant, it’s something we see daily in our news, values and cities. Yet it is constantly debated whether learning Te Reo Maori in schools should be mandatory. Many websites dedicated to the topic believe that by teaching te reo to students they learn the role that culture, language and heritage play in shaping identity. Like many countries it’s also important in showing how indigenous languages and cultures play a massive part in the world, despite being overrun by colonialism.

But none of that necessarily translates into students actually having a desire to study Maori language or culture. We live in a world where many young people view education as a means to acquiring a job. Therefore when offered a choice between learning Chinese or Maori, Chinese seems to offer far more commercial benefits. If we want our students to be inspired to learn more about our countries indigenous people, we need to offer it in more interesting and digestible formats. And beyond that we also want to encourage the rest of the world to learn about and embrace Maori and Kiwi culture.

Look in my opinion this is so much bigger than getting kids interested in te reo. It’s about getting the world’s youth interested in Maori and Kiwi culture. So I propose that the best way to reinvigorate interest in te reo is through video games. For the last 40 years video games have played a massive part in youth culture. A poll taken in 2007 found that Nintendo’s mascot Mario was more recognizable among Canada’s youth than the current prime minister (Understanding Media and Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication, 2010). And video games are not only popular, but they’re also great for educational purposes.


A 2006 study by the Federation of American Scientists found that children preferred to learn through video games and actually developed better analytical skills (Understanding Media and Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication, 2010). There are so many video games that have done a great job at teaching us about other cultures. Watch Dogs 2 elicits what it is like to be among the tech culture of San Francisco while Persona 5 simulates what it would be like to attend high school in Tokyo. So I ask you, why can’t a similar game embrace New Zealand culture and te reo in the same way?

And we don’t have to start from scratch. Video games have literally been built on what Rogers (2006) describes as a cultural exchange. The reciprocal exchange of genres, symbols and technologies between cultures of equal status. Video Games were traditionally a Japanese medium. In 1986 both Metroid and Castlevania were released. Yet in the years that followed game developers from all over the world have been inspired by and innovated upon the genre these Japanese games popularized. It is now Canadian developers like Drink Box studios who are keeping this genre alive within the gaming populace. Simultaneously open world action games, popularized by American companies like Rockstar are currently shaping what Japanese studios are wanting to create. It’s a cycle of cultures inspiring other cultures. No culture owns video games, it’s a medium that will be praised for its transculturation (Rogers, 2006).  So it is very much in the realm of possibility that a New Zealand company could take the learnings of Japanese, American and European games, but add a distinctly New Zealand or Maori approach to it.


But it’s crucial New Zealand acts quickly in cementing itself in this market, otherwise we risk falling victim to both our youth and the world’s youth only experiencing Maori culture and te reo through cultural appropriation (Rogers, 2006). Other cultures have already used traditional Maori imagery in the past, harming our cultural integrity, for purely financial gain (Ziff & Rao, 1997). And we aren’t alone in this issue.

For many years indigenous people have been used as enemies within games, due to the stereotype that they were far more barbaric than their European counterparts (Mahuta, 2012). The reward for winning, in the game Custer’s Revenge, is being given the privilege of raping a native American woman (Mahuta, 2012). And in The Mark of Kri, the player controls an obviously Polynesian/maori inspired warrior who must race to collect symbols of dark magic. These evil symbols are inspired by ‘tā moko’, the traditional Māori art of tattooing (Mahuta, 2012). At the time Maori i.p. campaigner Kingi Gilbert criticized Sony saying he felt offended that the company put no time or effort into respecting Maori culture within a game critics called blood thirsty (Milne, 2003). The games lead designer, in response, stated that he had researched Maori culture, but that these were all coincidences and that the team merely liked the Polynesian flavor the game was taking (Mahuta, 2012).


However this was a long time ago and in many ways New Zealand has proven it can find success through embracing te reo and Maori culture in video games. Kingi Gilbert worked alongside Sidhe Interactive in creating respectful depictions of the Haka in one of their games (Mahuta, 2012). Maru Nihoniho and her company Metia Interactive have been recognized globally for games like The Guardian, which totes a strong female Māori lead and Māori Pa Wars, a twist on the traditional tower defense genre, playable entirely in te reo, with a focus on stories from Maori history (Pound, 2018).

But learning a language and a culture isn’t easy. It takes intensive study and immersion to learn the ins and outs of another culture. But with virtual worlds and non-playable characters who speak and act within the norms of a designated culture, we can learn immense amounts about cultures that no longer even exist. Rez World was designed to promote language and the culture restoration of Native American tribes (Johnson, 2009).  The entirety of Assassin’s Creed: Origins was made with the help of qualified historians, and combat can be removed entirely and replaced with in depth teachings of the Egyptian way of life during the Greek colonization of the country.

High quality graphics, sounds and storytelling allow immersive analysis into the lives, habits, clothing and interests of a culture one may not be privy to through any other method (Lane, Hays, Core, Gomboc, Forbell and Rosenberg, n.d.). And even if there needs to be a degree of action or engagement to drive interest among youth, studies show that they are learning from these experiences (Lane, Hays, Core, Gomboc, Forbell and Rosenberg, n.d.).


This learning extends so much further than just ethnic culture. In Cutthroat Capitalism consumers must weigh the risks and rewards of kidnappings and piracy, as a Somali pirate, while given a variety of economic factors that must be managed (Understanding Media and Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication, 2010). Mental Health America describes 2016’s Helblade as a respectful and transformative way of educating the populace on what living with psychosis is really like (Cheang and Doshi, 2017). In Sleeping Dogs the player experiences the struggles of Wei Shen as he battles with the individualism he grew up with in the states and the collectivist culture he faces upon returning to Hong Kong.

So it’s pretty clear that video games could provide an abundance of opportunities for Maori culture and the reinvigoration of interest in New Zealand youth learning te reo. Yes in the past Maori culture was appropriated for financial gain, but now New Zealanders themselves are receiving widespread recognition for embracing te reo and New Zealand within games. The rest of the industry is already paving the way for us to embrace culture in new and interesting ways. It is merely up to us to make sure our culture is also a part of that movement.

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