Sunday, 26 January 2020

WHITIANGA WEATHER

Coromandel game developer putting te ao Māori on global stage

Whetu Paitai has always been good at building. In fact, he might still be a builder in Australia if it weren’t for two things - a broken leg and a promise kept. Thanks to life’s strange twists, he’s back home on the Coromandel, but instead of putting up houses, he’s reconstructing the world of his tāpuna (ancestors).

Whetu is the founder of Piki Studios, a game design company he runs while home-schooling his children in Coromandel Town. The leap from builder to educational games developer may seem like a big one, but Whetu remembers being drawn to technology from an early age. “When I was a kid, I enjoyed computers, but the geeky stereotype didn’t fit with the Kiwi view of being a boy. I grew up in Harataunga (Kennedy Bay), surrounded by bush. Computers went on the back-burner.”

When he returned to New Zealand, Whetu was seduced afresh by digital technology, so he retrained. Armed with new digital skills, he found himself helping out with the admin at his children’s Māori-language preschool and a lightbulb went on. “If I could be involved that much in my kids’ education, how much more involved could I be?” he said.

Whetu realised that by marrying his passion for IT with education, he could help other children learn the language and culture too by creating fun new resources. And so, his game building began. He started creating an online game, Mahimaina (Minecraft in te reo Māori), to help children learn the language. “There’s great value in little things,” he says. “For a child, seeing their culture represented on major global platforms is incredibly empowering.”

And it was this value that was exactly what one of the world’s largest tech companies was looking for. Last year, Microsoft came knocking. Would Whetu like to create a uniquely Aotearoa resource for Minecraft: Education Edition?

“It blew our minds,” said Whetu. “I knew Minecraft, but it wasn’t until we explored Minecraft: Education Edition, tweaked it, played with it and saw all the additional things it could do that we realised all the potential. This will open up so much more space for Māori and all Kiwis to learn and play in the Māori world.”

Minecraft: Education Edition brings the world of Minecraft to classrooms around the world, offering hundreds of free lessons as well as a global educator community. Whetu is the first to create a brand-new world immersed in te ao Māori. Characters based on his children and their friends guide young players as they walk through Nga-Motu, from the impressive waka hourua at the beach to the pā with its wharenui (large meeting house) decorated with ka-whaiwhai (painted panels) and tukutuku (woven lattice). Pātaka, rua (food storage areas) and a hāngī pit for cooking can also be found.

Whetu’s younger daughter requested her favourite bird, a pīwaiwaka, you can interact with a native kunekune pig and even an extinct moa, complete with sound recreated by the experts at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Children can learn words in te reo from the guides or via in-game exercises.

In future versions, intrepid voyagers will be able to visit the taniwha in the harbour and collect kaimoana near some pink terraces that may remind New Zealanders of the long-lost Pink Terraces, destroyed by a volcanic eruption more than 100 years ago.

“Whetu is so passionate about education and helping all kids, not just his own, understand our indigenous culture and that really shines through when you speak to him. He’s a natural teacher,” said Anne Taylor, Education Lead for Microsoft New Zealand. “The creativity and attention to detail with which Whetu has approached this project just blew us away. What he has created goes way beyond what we could ever have expected.”

The most difficult part of the project was the timeframe, just five short weeks. Luckily, Whetu was supported by other Māori working in the tech space, making it a truly collaborative process. His own children acted as in-house quality assurance, keeping dad on top of his game.

Soon Nga-Motu will reach an audience beyond New Zealand, as Piki Studios is now an official member of the Minecraft Partner Program, enabling it to add to the resources available in the global Minecraft marketplace. For now, the game will be available free to classrooms in New Zealand, as part of Microsoft’s Schools Agreement.

“Ngā Motu is a truly amazing resource for Kiwi students and teachers, and we know they’re going to absolutely love exploring and building on this world,” said Anne. “It’s not just Whetu’s children. We showed it to some of our global colleagues and the excitement in the room was just palpable.”

The innovation and potential impact of Ngā Motu was also recognised at the 2019 Māori Language Awards held in December were Piki Studios received the trophy for the education sector.

Pictured: The team from Piki Studios receiving the trophy for the education sector at the 2019 Māori Language Awards. From the left - Anne Taylor, Christina Goodall, Whetu Paitai, David Paitai, Hemi Kelly, Mahinarangi Melbourne and Rana Kapene-Paitai.

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