Ahead of Semi Permanent: 5 mins with Game Designer & Producer, Maru Nihoniho

7 months ago by

In the lead up to 2023’s Semi Permanent coming up in Pōneke this November, we chat with game designer and producer, Maru Nihoniho, who will be one of the featured speakers at this year’s event.

You can find out more about the Semi Permanent line-up here.

Are you planning on heading to Semi Permanent this year? Our friends at Semi Permanent have given us a discount code to share with our DA Community. Use the code SPDA15 to get 15% off your tickets.


He uri ahau nō Kāi Tahu, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui me Ngāti Porou. Ko Maru Nihoniho toku ingoa.

I am from Kāi Tahu, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui and Ngāti Porou. My name is Maru Nihoniho.

Can you tell us a bit about your creative journey? How did you get started in game design and what did your path look like that led you to where you are now?

My creative journey started when I woke up one morning and decided that I wanted to make computer games. This was about 22 years ago. I was a gamer and was curious about how games, especially computer games, were made. Over the years until I started making them, I would play games and I would always think to myself, how cool would it be if the character was Māori and in a Māori world? How awesome would that be to be able to interact with my culture in this environment? That thought always stuck with me: that somebody one day is going to make this game. Of course, that day never happened.

I decided that I was going to take myself on a journey to understand what the games industry is and how on earth I could get into it. I had to put myself through a game development course, but at that time in the early 2000s, there weren’t any specific game development courses. There were the things that games incorporate, like 3D modelling, 2D graphics and coding, but they were all different courses. I found the next best course that I could do, and that was a multimedia course. It was a one year diploma, but it still didn’t teach me how to make video games.

In New Zealand at that time, there was nothing here in terms of studying. So I decided to head overseas to USA to game conferences like E3 and GDC. I would listen to developers talking about game development and sit there with a notepad and a pen and write everything down. Then I’d come back to New Zealand and try to do it.

I learned through doing, applying knowledge, making mistakes but learning from those mistakes how to do it better next time. It was not the usual path into game development. My journey was a little bit longer and a lot more expensive and required a lot of travelling. When I think back now about it, it was hard but it was all worth it. Things today are much easier for me because I learned from listening to people. What I did realise is that if there’s something you really want to do, you’ll find a way to do it. It’s just how motivated you are to actually put in the time and the effort to make it happen.

With this year’s theme of ‘REFORMATION’ – what does this mean for yourself and your own creative practice?

I wanted to make computer games to highlight our culture on the world stage so our stories could be told with our voice. Whether it’s mythology, or a whānau story, or whether it’s totally made up, it’s still our voice that tells our story to the world. Our history hasn’t been written by us and it has been fairly whitewashed in some instances, meaning that our stories, our voices haven’t been told by us, by the people. 

It’s been happening for a while in other media, like film and television, where indigenous peoples get to tell their stories with their own voice. And those stories are amazing. They’re authentic and it gives you a real world view into different cultures. 

I want to bring our ways to the world through the gaming platform because if we don’t do it, somebody else is going to do it. People take our tāmoko and they put it on other game characters that don’t whakapapa Māori. I think to myself, how much cooler would that be though if they worked with our people and really added value and the depth to our art or our weaponry, or whatever it is. How much cooler would that be?

Reformation, from my point of view, is really about reclaiming what is ours and telling it from our point of view, with our voice, so that we can offer a different world view that people can learn from, engage with and immerse themselves in. I think this will allow peoples’ thinking to be expanded. 

Still image from the Gaurdian Maia game of a Māori wāhine looking out into a forest.

What are you looking forward to most at this year’s Semi Permanent event?

I’m looking forward to hearing people’s authentic voices. I want to hear their journey — the highs, the lows, where they are now, how did they get there? I’m inspired by other people’s journeys. People say to me, your journey is so cool. It’s awesome. And yeah, it is. But I’m so inspired by other people’s journeys, their successes, their failures. I’m just a person who loves hearing people’s stories, so I’m just looking forward to listening and learning. I’m bound to pick up something from someone’s talk that will be really relevant for where I am in the world right now.

Do you have any bits of wisdom or advice you can share for other females looking to break into the world of game design?

Just be yourself. Stand confident in yourself and who you are and what you’re trying to do. It’s really easy to have your confidence knocked. I did in my early days, when I started and the game development industry was full of comments like, girls can’t really play games, they don’t make games, you must work for marketing. I thought to myself, if I let the negativity affect my journey, then I’m not going to get anywhere. It had a kind of opposite effect on me. I was like, is that right? Well, I’ll show you and then I’ll just keep going. It sounds easy to say that, but it wasn’t. I had moments where I just wanted to give up. So stand strong and confident in who you are, what you want to do and what you want to achieve. No one is going to stop you. The only person that’s going to stop you is you. That’s it. 

You’ve got to look after yourself. My whānau support keeps me strong. They were very encouraging, my friends. You just look more at the positive than at the negative, keep dreaming your vision and every step you take is closer to that vision. Don’t give up until you know that you have absolutely done everything you can and you’ve tried every possible way you can.

Lastly, where can we follow along with your work?

If you’re on Facebook, TikTok or Instagram, I would say Guardian Maia [@Guardian.Maia on Meta platforms; @GuardianMaia on TikTok and YouTube]. That’s the most relevant game that almost parallels my journey. It’s the game that set me off on my path. I wanted to make a third-person action adventure game that featured a Māori character in a Māori world where our language is used and our culture is there. That was my very first game idea when I started Metia Interactive. It’s always been my focus over 20 years and it’s only recently in the last couple of years we’ve got some good traction. But you can also follow me on LinkedIn!

ABOUT MARU NIHONIHO

Maru Nihoniho is the founder of Metia Interactive, where she leads a team of developers, artists and programmers. In addition to designing and developing her own games, Maru also produces third-party games, both commercial and non-commercial titles, across multiple platforms, including PlayStation, Apple iOS, PC, Mac, and other technologies such as virtual reality. 

As a game designer and producer, Maru’s focus is on Indigenous storytelling through culture-based games that provide a powerful outlet for engagement and learning. She has published several Māori games, including Sparx which teaches rangatahi how to manage depression; Māori Pa Wars, a strategic tower defence game; Takaro to teach rangatahi about coding concepts; and Guardian Maia, interactive fiction that follows the journey of a Māori woman through a dystopian New Zealand. Her goal is to deliver games that are meaningful, featuring strong cultural themes with unique stories to tell in an authentic Indigenous voice. Maru was reconised as a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit on in 2016 for services to gaming and mental health.

In 2017, she was awarded the MCVPacific Women in Games – The Game Changers Award for Innovator of the Year, presented by Microsoft Xbox and the Māori Entrepreneurial Leader Award from the University of Auckland Business Leaders Awards. She was named in the Forbes inaugural Top 50 Women in Technology list in 2018. In 2019, she was awarded the Te Maunga Kai Kapua (Tuakana) Industry Pillar Pāwhiri award and most recently was honoured with the Te Hapori Matihiko Innovator Tōtara Award, recognising excellence in Māori digital and tech innovation.

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/marunihoniho

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/maru_nihoniho/

Guardian Maia Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/guardian.maia/

Guardian Maia TikTok: https://www.tiktok.com/@guardianmaia?lang=en

Guardian Maia YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/c/guardianmaia

Guardian Maia Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/guardian.maia

Guardian Maia website: https://www.theguardiangame.com/


About Semi Permanent:

Semi Permanent is the largest and longest-running creativity and design festival in the southern hemisphere. Over the past 20 years, it has hosted more than 50 events in 13 cities, featuring over 800 speakers and attracting more than 300,000 attendees. Past talent includes Aries Moross, Daniel Arsham, Gia Coppola, Jessica Walsh, Karen Elson, Michel Gondry, Nabil Elderkin, Oliver Stone, Sabine Marcelis, Ta-ku, Taika Waititi, Tom Sachs, and Tony Hawk.

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