October 24-26, 2007
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Paper: Worlds colliding: Participatory storytelling and indigenous culture in building interactive games

Samuel Mann, Otago Polytechnic Te Kura Matatini ki Otago; and Khyla Russell, Kaitohutohu, Otago Polytechnic Te Kura Matatini ki Otago, New Zealand


The SimPā project aims to convey and strengthen research aspects in regard to Māori culture, tikaka and knowledge using innovative and cutting edge technology. In short, the project aims to provide a means of telling whānau, hapū and Iwi Māori stories in 3D game format. This paper reviews the first stage of the project. The paper discusses learnings from the first stage of the project the creation of the “SimPā toolkit” to enable participatory development (he kohinga o nga mea rauemi). This includes communication and negotiation processes, technical choices and issues surrounding the recreation of narrative histories.

Keywords: Māori, computer education, culture, indigenous, game based learning, participatory development.

Personal Context

Khyla Russell:

I am Kai Tahu, raised in the traditional ways of gathering kai (food) and knowledge, of tikaka (correctness in all areas of life and living in the Māori world), and other forms of knowing. The mihi I recite in the presentation of this paper identifies, reinforces, and communicates my identity and position in my tribal, historical, natural, and cosmic world. My tāmoko or facial tattoo further identifies and communicates my personal locus in the Māori world. In a fundamental way, the tools used to create my mokq represent one relationship between a Māori view of technology and the role of personal/cultural identity within my Māori culture.

In addition, as a trained anthropologist and teacher, I have an identity and position in academia. This position allows me to understand my Māori identity from the academic perspective. This “other” identity is also the product of technology–technology which has allowed me to create not only an additional, complementary identity, but produce the specific outputs required in an academic position. Thus, I understand the uses of technologies as they affect and are affected by the world views from both the Western “professional” perspective and from the Māori “personal/tribal/historical” perspective. In so doing, I am participating in the fusion of colliding cultures. Regarding the Information Technology expressions and their worthiness, I defer to others' views in this presentation–yet another “fusion of cultures” in actual practice.

In my teaching role last semester, I marked a paper which impressed me with its regular allusions to a complementary, as opposed to a competitive, model between Māori and Western world views. This showed me that what is needed is far more widely practiced diversity of thinking within all areas of research, and cross-cultural fertilization and understanding. Thus, we chose my title as a co-presenter of this paper as i te mohiotaka o te kaituhituhi nei, (according to the understanding of this writer.)

Samuel Mann:

The SimPā project, which we will share with you today, aims to convey and strengthen research aspects in regard to Māori culture, tikaka (culture) and knowledge using innovative, cutting edge technology. In short, the project aims to provide a means of telling whānau (family), hapū (sub-tribe) and Iwi (major tribe) Māori stories in 3D game format. This paper reviews the first stage of the project.

The project recognises that certain aspects of Iwi or tribal Māori culture for non-Māori New Zealanders are a vital part of what distinguishes New Zealand from the rest of the world. This is true for Iwi (tribal) Māori members who are unable to access this through whānau (family) and hapū (sub-tribe) connections as well. It is intended that the project will assist in the creation of 3D game-based Iwi Māori digital content so that distinctly Iwi Māori voices and cultural content can be encouraged and promoted.

This development has benefits in terms of both technology and cultural awareness and the fusion of these two: Iwi digital content. The project will achieve this through active engagement and participation with Iwi through Runaka (local tribal council) engagement and member participation to build the games.

The paper discusses learnings from the first stage of the project. The creation of the “SimPā toolkit” will enable participatory development (he kohinga o ngā mea rauemi), including communication and negotiation processes, technical choices and issues surrounding the recreation of narrative histories. It will also discuss the theory and objectives which define this project.

The focus of my research which informs the SimPā project derives from augmented experiences, especially visual representation of knowledge spaces and the interaction of technology and art/narrative in exhibits. Recently, I have been examining developments that fall outside traditional development processes with the intention of identifying emergent themes that we can generalise back to the wider computing sphere. My research in creating technology-based exhibits, or as Walker (2001) puts it: “in trying to hide the computers while making exhibits come to life” puts the interaction of art and computing at the forefront of both cultures. My recent exhibit based works include “Pengy,” a collaborative inquiry based robotic agent development with a group of young scientists; “Timed Lapse” a long running collaboration with photographer Lloyd Godman; “Fish n'clicks” an augmented exhibit that provides a cross over between virtual and real life; and “Metamorphamatic” a large scale tropical habitat development. These developments have in common an interactive basis. All are driven by computing that is non-trivial. In their finished form, none involve a traditional screen-keyboard-mouse arrangement. We find a different role for functional requirements, differing measures of success, a complex role of interactivity that is closely intertwined with narrative and educational parameters. Perhaps the most important aspect is that of reality, not in terms of virtual reality but in terms of the integration of real and not real in the forms of interface, story and engine.

This development is more complex than a miniaturization of the technology; such a development is a perhaps indicative of a paradigm shift, as Weiser argued, the goal of “we are trying to conceive a new way of thinking about computers in the world, one that takes into account the natural human environment and allows the computers themselves to vanish into the background.” The search for precedents for this shift, and the attempt to identify implications of it, led to the current work.

Traditional Knowledge

When one uses the language of another, respect requires that that person to fully understand its use, even when fluency is not a requirement. Honouring the people and the language which they speak means knowing in terms of Te Reo Māori (Māori language). This, too, has a tikaka which is based upon the tikaka and kawa (the protocol that underlies the behaviour) of the people whose language it is.

In Māori culture, knowledge was passed down orally. For many this continues to be how our special knowledges and knowledge systems are transmitted. Further, orality forms and informs the ways of knowing derived from our whānau (family), hapū (sub-tribe) and iwi (tribe). Small wonder, then, that as we engage with our predominately literacy-based Tauiwi (“Other” or non-Māori) colleagues, we encounter collisions and counter points of view. What this paper attempts to do, then, is to assist those here to understand how we two and others involved in our project have had to learn to connect, to co-operate and to complement our differing languages and world views.

As we collide in our efforts to produce new ways of and means to engage with a cultures other than our own, we do so with respect for both their knowledge and our own in an effort to engage in a new learning. The aim of this connection is to cooperate in the creation of a blending of traditional Kai Tahu knowledge with modern technology and information systems which will complement these traditional knowledge systems. Our hope is that this co-operative way of engaging will produce a new pathway to learning that enhances, but never replaces, the traditional ways of learning. Rather, it will add a further depth to the whakapapa (evolution) of knowledge and create a richer and differently informed means of engaging in learning.

In times past, archaeology was the medium through which Western knowledge systems informed themselves about how countless millions of indigenous peoples lived and engaged socially as communities to ensure we survived. Though traditional archaeological methods continue to be practiced, more attention is being given to what we indigenous peoples know, with our stories, especially, gaining credibility within Western paradigms. As a consequence our her/histories are not confined solely to the realm of myth. The study of oral histories has become an acceptable means of research, and these histories often complement written ones whether through drawings, hieroglyphics, or written language as the tool for interpreting the how, what, where and when of a cultural Other. This project upon which Otago Polytechnic and Arai-Te–Uru Rūnaka (local tribal councils) engaged did so through Sam and me as the initial points of contact. Together, we took his idea to others for consideration and dissemination as a discussion point with possibilities.

It is this aspect of tradition and knowledge, its associated tikaka and kawa, and its way of being acquired as a consequence of these discussions that I wish to speak to. Sam, with his extensive understanding in Western academe and information technology expertise will address this way of knowledge acquisition. Perhaps what we are truly researching and producing is the access to information for others who may wish to successfully engage or who have successfully engaged with their national indigenous peoples. This project with which Otago Polytechnic and Arai-Te–Uru Rūnaka (local tribal councils) engaged did so through Sam and me as the initial points of contact. We took his idea to others for consideration and dissemination as a discussion point with possibilities.

Often what one partner in such cultural cooperative attempts feels is adequate and correct procedure may be for the other so far different as to have fatal cross-cultural relationship collision as the endpoint. What we are working hard to ensure is that rather than have cross cultural collision as the end point, we will create a process through creating a “how to” process for establishing such partnering . In this instance, the process for engaging came about as a possibility when we two were discussing how we might better engage those of our Iwi Māori who were not being appropriately engaged with in the existing education system in Aotearoa me Te Waipounamu (New Zealand's South Island).

To place this within a context, we first must understand that the compulsory educational achievements statistics for Māori, Pacific Islanders and low socio-economic Tauiwi (non-Māori/Pasifika citizens), are appalling. In my belief, this is unacceptable, and the Crown needs to accept full responsibility for its failure to engage through our education system those most in need. This is not only a matter of it being a basic human right, it is also an equity issue that, despite research results, the nation does not address. It continues to use the deficit theory as its model where the fault lies with the learner rather than those charged with engaging young people in compulsory education with learning.

One way in which young people throughout the world seem to be engaged is with electronic gaming using virtual realities with multitudinous scenarios and types of games. Thus, when we were first working on possibilities that we might address these shortfalls, Sam came up with a suggestion that we could create a virtual world which could engage the interest of our young people and, at the same time, have our elders as participants and contributors. He believed that, with the wealth and depth of all forms of historical knowledge and practices that the elders held, they could share stories which the young, with training, could re-create in a virtual world and reality. From that virtual reality, the young could go on to create E-games or virtual places and landscapes of our current times and times past, based on historical knowledge.

Such creations have a multiple benefits across ages and knowledge systems. As the more adept the young practitioners became in the information systems of both old and modern learning, the more robust the real possibilities for creativity and education. The widest possible benefits from this were, and continue to be, the creation of a means of access to traditional learning and knowledge acquisition by those of our Iwi who live off shore, using Information technology as the tool and medium for engaging people. For example, I have a mokopuna (grandchild) who lives in Japan. Because we do not see her regularly in person, this way of engaging her can be done in the first instance through her father. As she matures, she will have direct access to the knowledge.

What were the procedures to bring these idea to reality? My engagement, along with that of others, with our Rūnaka was one process that took time, infinite meetings and small hui (gatherings to discuss matters of interest) in order to seek support for this. Whilst this remains ongoing and I do regular updates, there were some who saw it as fraught; one particular participant raised issues on whose stories might be collected and how could we trust that these were accurate. How do we address this issue? One way is to acknowledge it as simple reality and work with it.

For example, in my tribe, Kai Tahu, we have a whakataukī (saying) which is “Ehara te take tahi he take tini ke.” This means that there is never a single truth but many. This approach would allow the inclusion of many versions of the same story. Another approach is self-selection for the story-tellers. That is, no one need participate who does not wish to. This would even allow people to be part of the hui (information sharing session) where the stories were being shared but need not offer any of their own. Further, where stories particular to specific whānau (families) were theirs alone, a means of safeguarding those stories would be adhered to. Thus, at the product's completion, the whānau (family) whose story had been re-created in a new medium, could view it, have it turned into a game or educational asset, or even restrict access to their whānau alone.

As an Iwi, Kai Tahu have a memorandum of understanding with our national Ministry of Education visibly operated through the production of a resource tool kit for use in schools called Te Kete o Aoraki. This kit not only assists schools to engage their Māori learners, but provides clear guidelines on how to engage with their whānau (families). The SimPā project will provide additional opportunities to educate children in schools using more generic stories already in the public arena. Since one of the staff now engaged in this research project was previously a facilitator for the Learning and Education Outside the Classroom (LEOTC) project, her ideas and abilities through experiencing the LEOTC programme will provide insight from her professional experience as well as her experience through having already long established engagement through the prior project, with Rūnaka.

Another issue to arise was that of intellectual property: who owned or would own what at the completion of any creation from the stories shared? Thus, we thus began the process of deciding how that might, could and should be worked out; a sub-agreement with a Rūnaka member company has addressed this concern. This sub-agreement has had further uses in that our institution has sought to have a firm definition of Indigenous Intellectual property rights. We were able to achieve this through my direct engagement with the Kai Tahu Māori Law Centre, as well as with the Iwi Corporate Legal Services arm. Now written and accepted by the Research manager and Chief Executive officer, that policy will sit alongside the Otago Polytechnic Intellectual Property Policy.

The SimPā Project

The project aims to convey and strengthen Māori culture, tikaka and knowledge by initiating a process of participatory Māori digital media design using 3D game technology. A key component of the project is a series of marae-based wānaka. Each wānaka be kaupapa Māori and participants will be immersed in tikaka Māori. Participants will learn about the traditions, environment, people and history of that place from local Rūnaka elders who are experts in Māori oral history and local knowledge. Using the “SimPā Toolkit”, participants work alongside the Rūnaka members and supervisors to create a “GamePā” (a virtual environment representing a place). Based on the knowledge of Rūnaka members, participants will define the landscape, environment, and features of cultural significance, such as food gathering sites.

Note: Pā refers to a stronghold, SimPā is shorthand for the whole project, GamePā refers to the developed game for each individual Rūnaka.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Overview of the SimPā process

The theoretical basis for the approach to the model derives from the combination of game and tikaka: iwi digital practice. Our belief is that this combination will excite and engage, while providing a vehicle for conveying hapu knowledge. This is an integrative initiative that pulls together research findings from a wide range of contexts. Accordingly, there is a primary question for each component of the project: will it work for improving engagement with indigenous knowledge? There are many sub-questions: pedagogical, cultural, technical and practical to support this primary question. Answering these questions will derive from the SimPā process and the development of highly valued set of resources.

First, the mechanical: will it work technically? In phase 1 of this development, the partners have developed a tested a prototype GamePā. This is an immersive 3D landscape for one site with limited interactivity. This has been applied in a single workshop and for much consultation. In formal evaluation for the funding agency, the technology has surpassed expectations. The hardware for the mobile studio has also been tested in this way. For example, at one Marae, the prototype GamePā was played via a network of 4 wireless laptops.

Figure 2a
Figure 2b

Figure 2: Huriawa Pā (Karitane Peninsula) developed in first series of wānaka sessions.

Second is the worth of the approach: will the participatory game design meet the needs of engagement in both ICT and things Māori? The questions that arise stem not just from each area of specialty, but also from the combination. It is not known, for example, how well Māori stories will translate to a game based digital learning format, whether workshop approach of having both young and older people creating a model together will work and so on.

While there are few studies that directly match this project, there is a wealth of prior knowledge in related areas. Some of these include:

  • Game based learning (Prensky 2001, Mann and Smith 2004, Raybourn and Bos 2005), Digital storytelling (Helen Barrett, http://electronicportfolios.com/).
  • Reflective storytelling (Alterio and Drury 2003).
  • Interactive storytelling.
  • Place based stories translate to game structures.
  • Object based story (Spring 2004, 2005).
  • Indigenous knowledge representation in interactive form (eg Kretschmer 2001 Spirit of history – interactive storytelling using AR approach but gets around fallacy of choice by location based stories).
  • Participatory development of digital resources including community (1st Nation Kinai project http://www.galileo.org/plants/kainai/).
  • Workshop based game development (Gillespie (2005).
  • Landscape as basis for knowledge (Russell PhD 2000).
  • Game structure, narrative and fallacy of choice.
  • Ownership of knowledge.
  • Everyday social histories (ongoing OP work with Heritage trust).
  • Games as basis for how to leverage social interaction (Lazzaro 2005).
  • Cultural immersion through technology (eg Japanese temple Calef and Vilbrandt 2002, Squire et al. 2005 Use of Civilisation in teaching history of European expansion).
  • Integration with other resources eg Te Matapihi (Combined Rūnaka and Otago Museum).

The overall objectives of this project can be summarized as follows: first, SimPā develops and tests a method for creating and using virtual environments to enhance learning of Māori narratives in the Kai Tahu and wider Māori community. Second, SimPā allows users to interact with histories and stories of local Kai Tahu places in a virtual environment. In 2006/7 the project worked with four Rūnaka, and in 2008 we will expand to work with the remaining fifteen Kai Tahu Rūnaka before launching nationally. These two primary objectives breakdown into the following specific objectives:

Objective 1: The development and testing of a participatory approach to game development. This will bring together people from within the Papatipu Rūnaka who will jointly learn about their own place and stories, and convert this knowledge to digital form.

Objective 2: Develop a software tool for creating specific Māori virtual environments: the SimPā toolkit.

Objective 3: Develop and test tools for the use of games in teaching Māori concepts. This encompasses specific research on the effectiveness of digital game based learning in a Māori context.

Objective 4: Develop techniques and practices for the use of GamePā

The resulting games provide an interactive learning environment for use within each Papatipu Rūnaka. It is expected that this will enhance their mātauraka Māori, enable individuals to connect and have respect for their landscape and historical stories. Each game will be the intellectual property of each Papatipu Rūnaka and provide an indigenous tool for future development in education and Māori business. We believe that this integrated model – using a resource that is interactive, online and multiplayer – will provide measurable benefits for individuals, whānau, hapū and Iwi.

Objective 5: Develop a new specialist area in education: Māori digital content. We are developing a programme aimed at capacity building within indigenous people. By combining cultural knowledge with skills required for developing digital game based learning resources, we hope to initiate a pathway to encourage careers in this area. This will provide career opportunities in education, information technology and business.

Objective 6. Develop a process of adoption of this initiative beyond the collaborating partners. This collaboration is not just between a single group of stakeholders, but involves complex structures of knowledge ownership. An important part of this initiative is the development of processes maintaining the integrity of specialist knowledge and tikanga.

This project provides a means to capture local content in a way that is engaging and exciting. Content created gains the benefits of digital medium: distribution, reproduction, storage, etc. Narratives (histories, stories) are told in a new and engaging form. Tangibly, SimPā offers the fusion between the old and the new forms of knowledge, a new tool for education, and an increase in Māori digital specialists. Intangibly, the value for money is potentially greater with the community interacting with their own history, the interaction of generations and further knowledge base of local stories and narratives.

This development will have benefits in terms of both technology and culture and the fusion of these two: Iwi digital content. It is important to remember that the GamePā are the product of the Rūnaka. At the project's completion, Otago Polytechnic will formerly pass to Rūnaka, their GamePā, thus the partnership will have recreated old sites into new virtual realities. The project will achieve this through active engagement and participation. The Rūnaka recognise that the time and money involved is an investment in their own stories.

The project hinges on the participatory nature of the developments. Rūnaka members support game creation process as experts sharing knowledge: telling stories & history and passing on specific cultural practices. Each Rūnaka is giving time to the project from planning through to implementation. The wider marae communities are offering support in terms of organising and supporting the marae wanaka sessions etc. The cost of the sessions is being offset by help with wanaka (food and preparation, board, koha).

The SimPā project can be seen to have benefits in several directions, as expressed by the “confidence, content and connection” of the digital strategy. This project will result in significant community benefit. There will be value to the target communities in terms of knowledge they gain, in particular, the increased confidence in the use of ICT to tell their stories.

Finally, SimPā uses a unique approach to ICT. On the marae–the traditional meeting house for Māori–it will provide experience of ICT in a familiar environment during wānaka (workshop learning) sessions. For example,

  • ICT will be provided according to tikaka Māori.
  • Skilled ICT people will be available.
  • Coming together of the value knowledge of the older generation and skill of the younger generation will encourage generation combination and mutual contribution as they participate side-by-side.
  • The potential benefits for participants will encourage them to use ICT.
  • The content and resource material is from the community, using ICT as a vehicle.
  • The procedures will be in place to ensure protection of knowledge ownership, which can be a significant barrier to use of ICT, particularly for Māori.
  • The project will demonstrate a way for ICT to be used to record and convey Māori knowledge.

This paper has described the development of a framework for representing indigenous knowledge through a games-based environment. There are a number of powerful outcomes from SimPā. First, it is bringing together the young and elders of the marae to share and learn about their history. Second,it gives computer training to young Runuka members. Third, it gives local maraes an interactive tool to teach people about “their place.” Finally, it allows members of that Rūnaka from anywhere in the world to learn about their history and network with their elders and cousins on the internet. Each GamePā is expected to become a valuable educational resource, particularly considering the demand for relevant digital content as schools actively increase their ICT capability. The SimPā Toolkit, used to create Māori digital content, will also become a resource of value for other education providers.

It is intended the results of research associated with this project will be made widely available. The SimPā project also provides an example of a unique approach of using ICT for the benefit of indigenous culture. This is relevant not only nationally but also to the international community. The SimPā project will make learning environments and Māori narratives relevant to the 21st century.


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Cite as:

Mann, S., and K. Russell, Worlds colliding: Participatory storytelling and indigenous culture in building interactive games, in International Cultural Heritage Informatics Meeting (ICHIM07): Proceedings, J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. 2007. Published October 24, 2007 at http://www.archimuse.com/ichim07/papers/mann/mann.html