Navigating Te Ao Māori in the digital universe

Issue: Volume 98, Number 20

Posted: 22 November 2019
Reference #: 1HA2wo

Kura and schools around New Zealand are now able to access a new Minecraft world where they can explore Te Ao Māori through gameplay.

At Newlands Intermediate, a group of students are exploring and building structures within their Minecraft world. However, this world is different from other Minecraft worlds. There are rimu and kauri trees, a native kunekune pig is roaming around and you can hear sounds of a kiwi bird and the now-extinct moa in the background. 

This is Ngā Motu, or The Islands, a new world in Minecraft Education Edition that incorporates Te Ao Māori and enables an option to navigate the world in te reo Māori instead of English. 

It’s the brainchild of Coromandel-based game designer Whetu Paitai, who was first inspired to develop this world for his tamariki. 

“Hopefully with Ngā Motu, our tamariki can get into these games and not only do they not have to code-switch language, but they don’t have to jump out of their world. They can play Minecraft and stay rooted in Te Ao Māori. For me, it’s about choice for families.”

Construction to game designing

Whetu has not been a game designer all his life – in fact his first career was in construction in Australia, which he did for 13 years. 

While he already has the digital skills – given his love for computers –
he says his experience dealing with clients in his previous careers helped with bringing Ngā Motu into reality. 

He says the process included “working with clients and what they need, what they want, and how to make sure that the conversation is really open, transparent and getting over lots of legal process”.

“So coming into this Minecraft, I’m looking at not just the game, I’m looking at the whole picture.”

Normalising te reo Māori through gameplay

What separates Ngā Motu from other Minecraft worlds is the ability for tamariki to immerse themselves into the game without having to switch to English. Translating the game took Whetu and his colleagues around four years to do, but he says it’s definitely worth it as he wanted to ensure that te reo Māori is normalised in the game. 

“It’s not just a couple of kupu Māori, it’s not just a couple of kīwaha, but it’s the entire game that’s presented entirely in te reo Māori. It’s not some app that they’ve slapped together just for the express purpose of putting te reo Māori on the map. It’s a deliberate, intentional translation of all aspects of the game.”

“Adding te reo Māori into that platform in its entirety helps normalise
te reo Māori for our tamariki and Pākehā as well.”

Whetu hopes that he will see more resources in te reo Māori and other languages as well. He compares it to the normalisation of books in te reo Māori some years ago.

“Back in the 70s, 80s, there was a big push for getting literature out there in te reo Māori and in 2019, we’re finally seeing the fruits of all those decades of hard work. We’re starting to see each year, there are more and more works being pushed out in te reo Māori at a lot of levels.

“The work is not finished yet. The gaming scene I see is in a very similar space as I suppose, the 70s and 80s. Now, there’s a push to see te reo Māori in tech space. Creating resources in te reo Māori, and in any other languages for that matter, helps to expand fluency of any native speakers of those languages.” 

Enriching for students and teachers

Newlands Intermediate teacher Marianne Malmstrom has been co-designing learning opportunities with students using games, like Minecraft, since 2010. She says that Ngā Motu is an example of both the flexibility and the deep learning power of this unique sandbox platform. 

“Upon entering Ngā Motu, students got really excited at seeing the kiwi, moa, waka and pohutukawa trees. And then they did what kids always do in Minecraft, they started to build. I smiled to see the houses were typical Minecraft box shelters and realised that they would need a nudge to more deeply explore what was special about Ngā Motu. 

“I issued the speed challenge, asking the class to form small teams, find the pā and identify a building they wanted to recreate. They had 15 minutes to take pictures and make notes. They were allowed an additional 15 minutes to return to the building area and try to accurately recreate what they had seen. It was meant to be a quick and fun way to get students exploring Ngā Motu in a more deliberate and thoughtful way.

“It worked. The kids had a blast and begged for more time to finish their builds. They explored the entire world and played the language games, which they really enjoyed even though they said it was much more challenging than they thought it would be,” says Marianne.

Newlands Intermediate Year 7 students Leilani, Belinda, Zephaniah and Kalisya are some of the students who are currently engaged in Ngā Motu. 

“It’s totally different. It’s cool how they brought the moa into the world because they’re extinct,” says Leilani.

Some of the students said it helped with learning the language. 

“I’ve learnt more words,” says Belinda.

“It helps learn about the meaning of the word,” says Zephaniah. 

Zephaniah, who identifies as Māori, says she liked seeing the pā in the game.

“When I went to the pā and saw it, I said ‘I remember listening to that story’,” says Zephaniah.  

“I looked up at the ceilings and they looked exactly like my marae, like the designs on the wall.

“It’s good that there’s things like the marae. If you haven’t been there for a while, you can just remember what the marae looks like. It’s good for students to know the meanings to the Māori words. I told it to my mum and dad, and they said it was very cool.” 

Role-playing in games

The role-playing feature of the game enabled the players to better understand the culture and concepts that surround it.  

“I was wondering what a pā was before, and then it turns out that it was a village,” says Belinda.

And while she hasn’t had a chance to spend a lot of time at a marae or immersed in Te Ao Māori, Kalisya says Ngā Motu is “a way to recreate an image of you being there yourself”.

Marianne describes how it works. 

“Role-playing is one of the ways in which children learn. Sandbox platforms, like Minecraft, provide a space for that to happen at all levels. Young children will process the real world through building and playing ‘house’ with their friends. Older students explore the complexities of the adult world through creating business economies, forming governments and even waging war.

“You can observe it in the way students organise their play creating factions or alliances while negotiating rules and consequences. It is fluid, constantly changing and surprisingly complex. 

“Minecraft makes it a fantastic space for students to develop social and emotional skills through exploring culture, their relationship to others and their place in the world. It’s a safe place for learners to make mistakes and gain confidence as they work things out and solve problems.

“Children have been playing and learning this way, in Minecraft, long before it was brought into school. They literally taught themselves, and each other how to set up servers, get connected, create and play together.

“Minecraft lends itself to the Māori concept of āko, where everyone is respected as both teacher and learner. Ngā Motu provides the perfect opportunity for teachers and students to practise this by co-creating projects that respect the expertise of students with the life wisdom of teachers,” says Marianne. 

Upgrades in development

Students have a couple of features that they wished to be added to the game.

“I would like PvP [player versus player] games, where you can remake how tribes used to fight with each other,” says Kalisya.

“I hope we can recreate the boats in Minecraft into canoes and waka,” says Belinda. 

“I want it to be whole Aotearoa so there is more stuff to explore,” says Leilani.

“I want to make a game where you can go back into the past, where the Europeans try to take over New Zealand and then see what was going on then and how the Treaty of Waitangi was made,” says Leilani. 

But the one suggestion that got a resounding ‘yes’ from all the girls was around the taniwha. 

“I think it would be cool if they made the dragon, the taniwha, something you can capture, you can have its egg and then you can spawn it, and then it can be yours and you can ride underwater in it,” says Leilani.

Whetu confirms that there are upgrades in the pipeline for the platform. 

“In one to two years, we’re aiming to have some functionality around ecology and hapū building. Ecology in the way that they’ll manage wildlife, food sources and that whole space. 

“Hapū building is about creating Māori societies and tikanga and exploring what that meant to us as Māori people back in the day. And also what it would mean for us as Aotearoa moving forward,” says Whetu.

A jumping platform 

Whetu says Ngā Motu enabled an expression of Te Ao Māori in this gaming space and allowing plenty of room for rohe and hapū, and even Pākehā to explore different facets of Te Ao Māori. 

“We fully intend Ngā Motu to be a jumping platform where students and teachers can build their own world, their own pā. But before they do that, they’re going to have to engage with their local hapū or iwi and just have conversations on whether they can build it. If they do build it, will they do it in partnership with them – which I encourage. 

“And if they build it in partnership with them, what are the learning outcomes from that? And to be honest, the learning outcomes from partnering with the hapū or iwi to build some of their spaces and places in pre-contact era, if that’s not genuine, authentic learning, I’m not too sure really what is. This is hopefully going to encourage conversations on a broader level.”

Whetu says embedding the language is a step in the right direction but that’s not the endgame for him. 

“I can translate Minecraft into te reo Māori but that’s not the end, it shouldn’t be the final step. Really we should be trying to weave more than just the language into the game but weave our entire world so that it’s not just the language our tamariki no longer have to code-switch between, but they no longer have to code-switch their constructs and their world view to go into these games. 

“They can hold on to their Māoritanga and be in the digital space at the same time. They are not mutually exclusive.” 

When asked about his plans for Ngā Motu in a decade or more, Whetu gave an unexpected response.  

“I hope Ngā Motu would be relegated to the archives and be in some museum somewhere. Because I hope by then, we’ve got an absolute flood of content creators creating things in Te Ao Māori and Aotearoa as a country itself. That’s really our goal as content creators.”

How to access Ngā Motu 

State and state-integrated schools and kura around New Zealand can access Ngā Motu (The Islands) at no cost through the Ministry of Education school software agreement with Microsoft. 

Information on how to download Minecraft Education Edition can be found on Te Kete Ipurangi(external link). Ngā Motu can be found in ‘View Library’ in the Minecraft menu. 

For information on all the software agreements, visit the Ministry of Education website(external link).

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:19 AM, 22 November 2019

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