Maru Nihoniho: Brilliant Game Developer Bringing Cognitive Therapy with Maori Culture

Read more about how Maru Nihoniho, an award-winning game developer gained success by combining technology, mental health, and the Maori culture.
Birthplace: New Zealand
Industry: Game Development
Success: Founder of Metia Interactive company
Recognition: Listed in Forbes’ Top 50 Women in Tech
Honors: New Zealand Order of Merit

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Brian Hadi Attarbashi
Updated on:
Jun 15, 2022
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In preschool, the common question to young minds would be: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Some would answer common professions such as doctors, teachers, astronauts, or pilots. But in our time, we all seldom know that those professions we dreamed of when we were younger are not what people would be doing as an adult.

It could be because children still lack exposure to reality, still require some room for development, and haven’t found some interests that speak for their character. However, others have intense interests, that curiosity and personality bring them to a great dream.

“Every great dream begins with a dreamer.”

-Harriet Tubman

This dreamer is Maru Nihoniho, who started with an interest in playing arcade and video games and developed a game with a purpose.

But what’s extraordinary about Maru is that her dream isn’t just any ordinary dream. Her dream became a reality that affected all for the better while showcasing inclusivity. 

Early Life

Family

Maru Nihoniho was born in New Zealand in 1973 and had ancestry in the Māori culture.

She grew up like an average child who explores their interests at a young age, and for Maru, video games caught her eye. Her interest in video games started at age 11. She would spend her spare change on arcade games while eating fish and chips at the takeout joint.

Maru grew up beside the motorway in North Canterbury, between Christchurch and Tuahiwi. Her full name, Maruhaeremuri, was named after her ancestress from Te Whānau a Maruhaeremuri, which is a hapū within Te Whānau a Apanui.

Maru’s mother, Maruhaeremuri (Kui), shared the same name with her and was proud to teach people how to pronounce both of their names correctly to others. Rongotehengia Nihoniho, Maru’s father, was an aircraft engineer. He died when she was six, and her mother never remarried.

Education

Maru Nihoniho attended Tuahiwi Primary School, a whānau and community-based school that made her feel comfortable.

It all changed when Maru participated at a second school, Sydenham Primary, which had hardly any Māori students. This continued down to Cashmere High, still having no one with whom to relate in terms of her heritage.

Maru Nihoniho’s situation changed when her mother received a Māori Affairs transfer to Wellington. Maru was placed at Taita College in Lower Hutt, where she was comfortable being around Māori children and where there was also a significant Pacific population.

While in Christchurch, Maru already developed into a formidable gamer when she was 11 or 12. After moving from Christchurch to Wellington, she decided to leave school and took up voluntary work at a secondhand shop.

Early Career

First Job Ventures

A takeaway shop was within walking distance of Maru Nihoniho’s house in Spreydon. When Maru’s mother had to go on a work trip for Māori Affairs, she would stay with her aunt, who lived close to another takeaway shop where she could play a game called spacies.

When Maru first started playing video games on arcade machines, she was fascinated by how they were created. Maru Nihoniho was intrigued by how they operated. And because she didn’t quit playing those games, that curiosity stayed with her all these years.

After that, when Maru and her mother moved up to Lower Hutt, Wellington, there was also a takeaway store. Maru and her friends often play the spacies when they are supposed to be at school.

When Maru could afford a game machine, she kept playing games even after graduating from high school. That was a Sega Megadrive, followed by a Sega Saturn, and finally a Playstation 4, which Maru currently owns.

Nihoniho was in the hospitality industry for 14 years before gathering the courage to make the switch.

First Job Ventures

In 2003, Maru Nihoniho finished a one-year multimedia course and then founded the company, the first run by a woman in New Zealand.

Business Career

Maru Nihoniho traveled to the United States the first year after launching the company to study the industry at conferences such as the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles and the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

She realized that diving into games would need quick understanding and the ability to turn when required.

Business Career

It wasn’t an easy road for Maru Nihoniho.

Nihoniho attended many conferences and maxed up more than two credit cards. She had to go abroad since New Zealand’s industry at the time consisted of only one company situated in Wellington.

As a result, Maru had to attend these massive conferences to network and learn about the gaming industry.

Maru Nihoniho took Guardian, a game with a Māori protagonist that’s entirely story-driven and character-based, with her to these conferences. That was Maru Nihoniho’s first game concept, which she pitched for a year or more.

However, she quickly discovered that no one was prepared to pay her and her company millions of dollars to produce that game. Maru was on the verge of giving up.

Maru Nihoniho learned she needed to take the blinkers off and look at the big picture - rather than focus on one specific idea. She then took a fresh approach and developed Cube, a different game.

Maru Nihoniho Cube

To make Guardian would have been expensive. However, Cube had a completely unique concept. The game wasn’t based on characters or stories.

Maru planned to make a puzzle game that would cost less than a million dollars, though she had to hire a couple of programmers to help her build a prototype. During her research on pitching ideas, Maru learned she needed a prototype.

After that, she flew overseas and pitched it. Maru’s attempt at public speaking didn’t pay off either, even though she spoke in front of as many people as possible - which was difficult for her because of Maru’s innate shyness.

In the meantime, Maru had returned to New Zealand with a prototype but had spent more money - and yet nothing had happened.

At that point, she began to believe: “I’m done now.” Maru’s finances can’t allow her to return to the United States. During that season of her life, Maru had two young children, and they were still in preschool. They also cried whenever she left, which made things much more difficult.

But then there was another convention in Australia. Despite her declining finances, she reasoned, “Okay, I might be able to attend that one.” And so Maru did.

She flew to Australia and set up a stand in Melbourne. Maru displayed her prototype every day, but it was her only and final chance to get Cube signed up with someone.

After the third and last day, a publisher paused, played Cube, and said, “Yeah. This is extremely cool. I believe this will work for PlayStation. Here’s my card. Give me your card, and we’ll get back to you.” Maru finally cracked the opportunity.

The next day, Maru received an email from the publisher proposing an offer. So, before making any commitments, Maru talked to her lawyer about it, thought about it briefly, and decided to sign up.

In 2003, Maru Nihoniho established her Metia Interactive company. She received the funds for Metia Interactive’s debut game, Cube, and had the signal to create the game, and it was a success. In 2007, the game was released worldwide on PlayStation Portable.

After the game’s success, publishers began asking Maru what other games were lined up on her sleeves. Maru’s accomplishment piqued the interest of Auckland University, which requested her to create a program to assist rangatahi in dealing with depression.

Auckland University had this idea for a game that was attractive to young people and gave them a tool kit or therapy to deal with mental health.

Maru knew nothing about mental health therapies, but the University experts explained that the game would help rangatahi Māori because of their high rates of depression.

It was a brilliant idea, but Maru had never built a game like it before. In reality, she had only ever produced one game, Cube. The University consoled her by stating that they had never gone down this path before and were in the same boat.

What happens when specialists in their field meet with one idea? Collaboration – the University emphasized that while Maru had the technical knowledge to bring games to life, they had the mental health experience to make the groundbreaking idea to life.

Maru admired the kaupapa behind it, so she and her team developed the SPARX game, with what you see today, New Zealand’s Māori and minority ethnic groups in mind. SPARX was the finished product, and it was launched in 2013.

The game was created with cognitive behavioral therapy in mind.

Maru’s team had several discussions with kaumātua while designing it, particularly on utilizing Māori cultural elements in the game and making that everything was in order.

One of the coolest things when the game was done, was that it was shown to various test groups of young people, who said SPARX was built for them.

While it was great for Maru to hear such positive feedback, it was also a terrific learning experience for us to work on that game–definitely an eye-opener.

Not only is it possible to mix pleasure and instructional platforms, but games like SPARX are also self-paced. Players may pick it up and play it whenever they want–with whānau, by themselves, or with friends.

SPARX’s positive experience had a significant impact on Maru herself. Metia’s focus since then has been on making games with meaningful play. Something educational in one way or another.

Metia Interactive developed several games before something fresh arose, including the internationally successful PlayStation Portable game Cube.

Maru Nihoniho is now continuing along the journey of creating games that have a purpose other than entertainment; this time focused on education.

The irony was that the game, playable on a web-based platform, would be developed and created as part of Nihoniho’s education.

“When I think back about what I was interested in during my high school years – science, technical drawing, and art – it makes perfect sense, what I’m doing now because it kind of encompasses all of that.”

Maru Nihoniho is completing a year-long master’s qualification through Tech Futures Lab, and Takaro was her main project.

Takaro, which means game or play in Te Reo, focuses on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines since young people were not picking up on those subjects.

It would be launched at various North Island schools before being fruitful, and the prospect of expanding it elsewhere was considered.

In September 2019, Her 3D puzzle game, Takaro, created by Metia Interactive, was a finalist in the Simulation Australasia Annual Awards. Maru proudly shares her story on Te Ahi Kaa as core to her gaming concepts.

Ahi kā or Ahi kaa (burning fires) is a principle in Māori culture, referring to taking whenua through visible occupation and land use. The Ahi kā is one of the traditional methods used to establish mana whenua.

Maru holds her heritage close and is determined to keep the culture alive since it declined when English speakers arrived in New Zealand. When traveling to a new country, getting to know the locals is essential.

In New Zealand, this rings true because the best place to start is by learning more about some of the country’s longest inhabitants, the Māori.

Today, Māori are still an essential part of New Zealander society and account for over 14% of the country’s population. The Māori people, often known as New Zealand’s indigenous Polynesian population, have a long history dating back to the early to mid-1300s.

Hundreds of years later, the Māori culture, rich in arts, history, and tradition, remains an essential element of New Zealand’s identity.

Apart from Māori’s rich customs and traditions, Te Reo Māori, New Zealand’s native language, is also a core identity of Maori culture.

Te Reo Māori was recognized as one of New Zealand’s official languages in 1987, along with English and New Zealand Sign Language.

It is closely linked to Cook Islands Māori, Tuamotuan, and Tahitian. Since 1945, the number of Mori speakers has declined dramatically, but a revitalization campaign has slowed the loss.

The language of Māori is an integral part of their culture because when you start immersing yourself in the language, you don’t learn the words. Learning Te Reo Māori means allows the speaker an insight into the worldview.

Each sound, syllable, or word has an origin story that shows connections to other words, their ancestors, beliefs, environments, etc. It is unthinkable to learn the language without learning everything the culture stands for and the traditions that it represents.

Te Reo Māori is the gateway to understanding the worldview Māori natives have.

Other Ventures

Because the Māori culture is slowly being endangered, New Zealand is making efforts for its preservation.

The Māori language is a treasure at the heart of Māori culture and identity, and it must be protected and nurtured solely for that reason. It serves as a platform for Māori cultural development and promotes New Zealand’s unique identity in a global culture.

Maru Nihoniho is currently serving as a Director of Maori Television.

Maori Television, New Zealand’s national indigenous media institution, uses a digital-first, audience-led strategy to create instructive, entertaining, and engaging programs to promote, reinvigorate, and normalize the Māori language.

Recognitions

Awards and Honors

Founded in 2003, Metia Interactive was established by the 45-year-old New Zealand game developer to foster youth mental health and introduce the world to the culture of the Māori, New Zealand’s indigenous Polynesian people.

For her gaming and mental health work, she won the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2016. In 2018, Maru Nihoniho was named the Māori Entrepreneur of the Year.

Forbes named Maru Nihoniho one of the top 50 women in Tech and released an article, “How The Award-Winning Creator Of Cube And Tākaro Is Bringing Māori Culture To Video Games.”

Metia Interactive employ six developers, earned $300,000 in revenue last year, and won some outstanding awards:

  • Cube, PlayStation Portable a puzzle game, received a Special Mention from the United Nations World Summit Awards.
  • SPARX earned the 2011 United Nations World Summit Awards, then the 2013 UNESCO Netexplo Award. SPARX game aimed to help depressed young people, particularly Māori rangatahi.
  • Tākaro (which means game or play in Te Reo Māori) was released in 2017 to encourage more rangatahi and other youths to pursue careers in STEM. The Innovator of the Year award was likely the result of Takaro's work, which earned Nihoniho a place in the 2017 MCV Pacific Women in Games Awards from Microsoft Xbox.
  • Guardian Maia, Maru’s most recent game, is a text-based adventure game that delves into Māori culture. Since before Cube’s introduction in 2007, it was a passion project.

In the future, Nihoniho plans to expand the platforms she uses for creating these experiences, spurred on by her new degree.

Personal Life

Maru Nihoniho and Samim Ozyurteri met while working in the hospitality industry and later married. They began working together about five years after Samim opened a café on Ponsonby Road. After the couple had their first child, Maru took on an administrative role for the business.

“Being a Mum and running a business is tough, but those multitasking skills can come in super handy now, and being Māori, I’m able to look to my culture for inspiration and strength.”

Both have three children named, Tepere, Hinetera, and Apanui. Maru Nihoniho also has a married name, but she is still known as Maru Nihoniho in the gaming business, and she has been sticking with that. 

Maru’s early days were spent thinking about games for PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo. Today she is more likely to work on small screen games.

“The gaming world has opened up, especially since smartphones have become more powerful and there are online stores to publish to. Games are now seen as another resource to help educate and train, so the customers have changed. My customer 15 years [ago] was a games publisher. Now they are educational institutes, businesses, and the consumer themselves.”

Maru’s husband, Samim, still owns and operates Taksim in Epsom, but she moved into game creation — though on occasion, when he’s short-staffed, his wife will go in and work behind the bar, at the till, or on the floor.

Key Takeaway

Game development is where creativity meets technicality, and Maru was talented.

Maru Nihoniho’s games were mixed history and social studies and then fused the technology as a vehicle while collaborating with health and science. These are impressive qualities of a creative and collaborative mind.

According to studytime.org, playtime definitely helps career time. Among all adults, 87% believe they succeeded in their careers thanks to the skills they learned from playing.

Soft skills such as:

  1. Creativity (56%)
  2. Teamwork (50%)
  3. Problem-solving (42%)

Through play, adults also learned:

  1. Empathy (41%)
  2. Communication (39%)

Looking back, she did not know where she was headed, but she believed in herself and allowed the people around her as the greatest support even when times were rough and tough.

Sometimes, it is in the interest where raw talents are hidden. She couldn’t have thought of being a game developer if she hadn’t made her dream as passion and true passion as reality.

As a tech entrepreneur, imitate Maru to be persistent, curious, and brave. Most entrepreneurs start at the bottom before making their way to the top. Maru Nihoniho’s strong curiosity led her to uncover her talents and allowed them to be utilized for a great purpose and a culture’s legacy.

So when you ask little children what they want to be when they grow up, I guess time will tell, and we’ll never know. But ask yourself, what do you want to be when you grow up? Be curious and brave, then you’ll know.

Brian Hadi Attarbashi

Brian is the CEO of AI bees. When he is not running the company with German precision, Brian writes expert articles about marketing and manufacturing. When not doing these, you will find him rescuing dogs or mowing competition down at a jiu jitsu studio.

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