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Maru the Maori heroine of video games

As part of Tairawhiti Tech Week 2018, Shaan Te Kani met up with Ngati Porou innovator and tech developer Maru Nihoniho who has plenty of advice for rangatahi, young people.

She’s a woman, a mother-of-three and she’s Maori.

It doesn’t sound like the “typical” credentials for someone who makes video games for a living.

But Maru Nihoniho of Ngati Porou says it’s a great mix, and the possibilities are limitless for anyone who has a passion for tech, and is willing to roll their sleeves up.

Maru has family links to Te Araroa and Hiruharama, as well as Te Whanau a Apanui and Ngai Tahu.

She is a beacon in the tech industry for young people, and especially young Maori innovators and creatives.

She founded her own game development company, Metia Interactive, in 2003, and is renowned for designing and developing medically therapeutic games.

She developed SPARX, an educational tool to help young people combat depression.

And just last week, she released ‘Takaro’, a video game that teaches children coding techniques in a fun way.

While making video games for a living, may sound like children’s play, it has gained Maru plenty of national and international recognition.

She was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2016 for services to the gaming industry and mental health, and was also recognised by the United Nations World Summit Award twice — in 2009 and 2011.

Maru was in Gisborne last weekend as part of the Hack Tairawhiti event, where some of the country’s top tech talent helped to create digital business solutions for Maori export companies — like Metia Interactive — over 48 hours.

Maru says there is a surge in Maori innovation and creativity in the tech industry, and she is set on encouraging and supporting this young and diverse talent.

One way she does this is by being a mentor in the Digmyidea Maori innovation challenge, which is a call to all Maori to submit an innovative digital business idea that has the potential to go global.

Initiatives like Hack Tairawhiti and Digmyidea are part of this rise in a new age of Maori innovation, which Maru encourages young people to take advantage of.

“Tech is the future and the opportunities are there for them to create their own mahi and businesses.

“So much will change between now and five years from now.

“Tech is more accessible, and businesses have realised how influential tech is across all sectors.”

“I encourage rangatahi to utilise these tools to do something no one has done before.

“Young people will come up with their own ideas, and have out-of-the-box ideas that will be brand new.

“I want young people to realise that they have the potential to do this, and that they can have a great impact in our communities.”

In regard to small regions like Gisborne, Maru says tech will become even more significant, bringing Tairawhiti closer to national and global platforms.

“Tech can bring these communities so much closer.

“There’s this thought that with more technology, screens and devices we will be less connected with one another.

“But as strange as it sounds, it will probably make communities closer.

“It’s important to think about the future in terms of that.”

Innovation does not just happen on a computer screen, says Maru.

“One of the really cool things I have seen locally is the Hikurangi Hemp initiative on the East Coast.

“For me, seeing that kind of venture in Tairawhiti is amazing. Who would of thought that 10 years ago?

“If that can happen here, then what next?

“It’s about a community having a different idea and daring to think outside the box.”

After 14 years in the industry Maru feels the need to give back and pay it forward, by helping those at the start of their dream.

“I chased my own dream in this industry, but I know that I have this role as well.

“I love it when kids come up to me and ask questions. I see that spark in them. Kids have more opportunities today, take it.

“I want to pass on some of the learnings that I’ve had.

“Be yourself, be strong and you can do it. I failed a lot of times but I learned.

“It’s alright to make mistakes and fail, you learn and become better for next time.

“When you have an idea in your mind and you think ‘how can I make that happen?’

“You have to figure that stuff out by doing research, working hard and staying resilient.

“Sometimes when things don’t work out, we don’t want to carry on.

“But if you don’t get back up and try, then that’s as far as it will go.

“If you try again, you will have gone one step further than where you were before.

“So you need to have more than just a really cool idea. It always needs to be backed up by hard work and resilience.

“And learning about business and finances is part of that hard work.

“As creatives, that’s usually something we struggle with because we just want to create and be artistic.

“But in all reality, for these things to be successful you need to learn about the business side of things.

“Nurturing ideas, but also providing practical information and advice to young people, is what people like me need to share.

“Young ones need people who will believe in them, but who will also offer support in their journey.”

MENTOR: Maru Nihoniho of Ngati Porou wants young people to realise their potential in the growing tech industry. Picture by Rebecca Grunwell