Rangituhia Hollis (2009)

In considering appropriations of Maori traditional knowledge in the field of commercial Video games it becomes clear that we begin to contend with those who use Maori for their own agendas. While it goes without saying that indigenous peoples have never been able to rely on the equitable nature of global corporations to construct our image in consultation, Maori involvement in the field of Video games has largely been embroiled in a process of identifying and working to enlighten both those responsible for misrepresentations and the consumers who purchase their products. It may seem counter-productive to expend energy in this way, yet this has long been the double bind for those subjected to the systems of colonisation. As such those who take issue with mis-representation, do so to ensure that the suppressive systems of colonisation do not take hold in new forms.

Mu-torere is a pre-colonial Maori board game of Ngati Porou origins, and was the first and only Maori game concept that has been faithfully ported into a distributable digital format (play the game) . Apart from mu-torere and Sidhe Interactive’s consultation with Iwi in their use of the haka ‘Ka mate’ in Rugby League 2 , there are only examples of misappropriation of Maori content in commercial video games. The first of which was ‘The New Zealand Story’ released by Taito in 1988. In the game Maori are represented as boomerang throwing and arrow firing henchmen, Whare (Traditional houses) are represented similar in appearance to Zulu huts and Poutokomanawa (Carved poles) are rendered like Native American Totem. In the Sims 2 the character builder allows you to put a full faced moko onto your character. The Moko can be placed on all characters including babies and children.

The most documented game in this lineage is ‘The Mark of Kri’. Tina Engles-Schwarzpaul’s essay ‘Dislocating William and Rau: The Wild Man in Virtual Worlds’ currently has the distinction of being the only academic text to focus on the position of Maori in relation to video game theory. Essentially the essay unpacks the reasoning behind the appropriation of Maori content by commercial interests; and she explains that the main character Rau fulfils long held romantic notions of the noble savage and variances in the distance between nature and culture that the savage allows the west to perceive. She states that:

Modern society conceivably needed the contrast of its savage others to affirm the Western ego’s identity

Tina Engles-Schwarzpaul

While on the one hand the developers of the Mark of Kri suggest that the Polynesian appearance of the characters was an intended point of difference for their product to stand out in a marketplace that is already saturated with heroes; it was by the lead designer Jeff Merghart’s admission that the aesthetic simply took what little they knew of Maori tattoo and shuffled it around in order to avoid cultural specificities of the culture that they were co-opting:

…Everyone liked the Polynesian flavor that the game was taking on so we tried to make things with a more contemporary or inventive Polynesian twist where we could. Like Rau’s chin tattoo. In New Zealand Women are the ones who traditionally wear a tattoo on their chin. But Rau’s isn’t Maori and he’s not from or in New Zealand, so we kind of keep our ass covered that way. We apologize for any coincidences.

Jeff Merghart

The Mark of Kri is also mentioned by Maui Solomon in a peer review report for the New Zealand Ministry of Economic Development. Where he cites multiple misappropriations of Maori traditional knowledge by corporate interests based both domestically and abroad. The use of Moko in the Mark of Kri was listed as one of these offenses. Solomon surmises Sony Playstation’s response for not withdrawing the game:

They were not doing anything ‘illegal’ (as opposed to being unethical or culturally offensive) and furthermore that Maori should be ‘grateful’ that their culture was being ‘promoted’ to a worldwide audience.

Maui Solomon

Game designer Kingi Gilbert wrote in an open letter of complaint to Sony Playstation, qualifying several aspects of the potential offense. Such as the developer’s lack of consultation with ‘experts on Maori heritage’ in their use of Moko, Taiaha (traditional weapon) and Maori inspired words. Gilbert’s intimates a ‘what could have been?’ argument, when questioning just what the inclusion of indigenous consultancy in the games design might have yielded. He continues to state that there:

…Surely [are] ways to show more respect and creativity in the development process than to inflate negative social experiences.

Kingi Gilbert

It is notable that Kingi Gilbert is also a game developer and Director of Ignite Studios based in Auckland. Until recently Ignite were developing a game entitled ‘Mokai: Slave Warrior’. A title that would concern anyone worried about the perpetuation of ‘negative social experiences’ such as the Jake ‘the muss’ archetype – the warrior descended from slaves. However this concern was allayed in discussions with Gilbert it was rather a story of a Pakeha (European) character John Mokai, in Gilberts words:

A lowly class street Pakeha…a slave in his own culture…He fought on the side of the Māori against the very people who enslaved him.

Kingi Gilbert

Gilbert notes the difficulty in appealing to the broadest market without giving in to the ‘considerable pressure to make another Pocahontas’.

It could be that despite a burgeoning discourse regarding Maori representation in video games that the horse has bolted. The Xbox first person shooter ‘Gears of War 2’ like Kri also introduces a faux-Maori character ‘Tai Kaliso’. The developers again co-opt the Moko and assign stereotypic cultural traits fulfilling western expectations of Maori. “Tai” is represented as a character with a philosophical and cultural make-up bound to a warrior order as the central focus of his people. Given that his appearance is overtly that of a Moko’d Maori male, there can be little doubt as to which people the developers refer. The game simply parallels and reconstitutes years of misrepresentations too numerous to list, but that I would suggest are exemplified by Rod Lea’s disturbing assignation of the “warrior gene” which produces seemingly legitimate proof that Maori corporeality is bounded to violence.

It seems that it is not simply enough for game developers to incorporate a Maori aesthetic in order to qualify a character’s validity to its consumers, these characters must also be set against an appropriated cultural background. In the case of commercial videogames and their need to appeal to broad market concerns, this cultural realism is the transposition of a colonizers perception of indigenous life and is often disjunct from reality. A study of the representation of Maori in videogames reveals Maori and indigenous peoples are amalgamated in the imagination of game developers.


the game could have provided the ultimate decolonizing experience (Mikaere, Reed 54). It was through the study of mu-torere that I became aware of the need to focus on the perspective of players in order to unpack the intentionality of a system or social structure. Mu-torere is a two-player board game of Ngati Porou origins. With nuances unique to the design of the game that only become apparent to those who play the game. As all accounts of the game focus on documenting its rules and systems they leave questions unanswered regarding the cultural relevance of the game. So I found an in-game critique became a necessity. I also think that through game play it may be possible to access a pre-colonial experience that can be differentiated from cultural exclusivities due to the games basis in mathematics. Therefore connecting one to the decision making process as it would have been experienced when the game was first designed. Through gameplay one experiences the parameters of a system first hand, while Eldson Best’s record of mu-torere denies a “common understanding or common basis for understanding” (Bishop 203) that forms Russell Bishop’s ideal of reciprocity between researchers and those researched regarding their “concerns, interests and agendas” (203). Best had his own imperatives in this regard he notes that he “has made no study of this game mu-torere [from a players perspective]” as a result we can see inconsistencies in his account that place limits on a clearer understanding of the games significance to those who played it (Best 15). As one plays mu-torere they become familiar with two game ending moves. These I will refer to as the traps of mu-torere as they shut down game play. These traps occur at two points in game play. The first first trap occurs on ones first move and will always result as a win for first player. The second trap occurs in four turns in favor of the second player. While Best identifies a “tapu” prohibiting players from moving into a winning position on the first turn (which is represented by a Jelliss sequence of A, Z*), he fails to identify that the rules that he outlines define the outcome of the game before a move is ever made (Best). Any significance that these traps may have is dismissed by contemporary analysts as negligible in relation to the wider mathematical discussion of all the potential arrangements that can be mapped.

In plotting the unmapped traps of mu-torere, I have determined that A, H, I, B, Y* is the Jelliss sequence that ensures that the player who moves first will always lose. Game analysts presume that the lack of a second rule prohibiting this sequence reveals the failure of historians to document a rule restricting “trivial wins” (Straffin, Jr. 384). These analysts see the trap as evidence of “inconsistency in the literature regarding the starting rules” (Ascher 90). Whereas I see it more specifically as evidence that historians such as Best never played the game. Best records the phrase “E mu torere ana ranei koutou ki au, e hoa ma!” which he translates to “O friends! Are you playing mu torere against me?” and later summarizes as “Are you striving against me? (Best 14).” Yet no example is given to place the phrase in a context of its everyday usage. It seems to me that the phrase obviously relates to strategies that emerge in play. In this respect I contend that playing Mu-Torere reveals more regarding what might be perceived as the idiomatic significance of mu-torere to its players than Best is able to attribute. Focusing on the A, H, I, B, Y* sequence, the resultant meaning could be that of a warning that if you attack then you will lose. If we consider the A, Z* sequence as significant, it could be considered a lesson that one should only attack if they can be certain of a win. It is notable that these speculations are only valid if the game itself is competitive. Given that there are 92 achievable patterns these could be goals to be reached rather than trapping another player. Each in-game variation shifts and enhances the potential meaning of the phrase beyond those that have previously been considered. I have a sense that Mu-Torere’s phrase is a way of acknowledging one’s awareness of a how a given set of variables such as systems, opponent(s) or perhaps even a given set of circumstances exist in relation to ones own interests.

Works Cited

Engels-Schwarzpaul, Tina. “Dislocating William and Rau: The Wild Man in Virtual Worlds.” CiteSeer, Auckland University of Technology. link.

Gilbert, Kingi. “New Zealand’s Intellectual Property Concerns.” Web.

Gilbert, Kingi. “Re. Kiaora Kingi.” Email to the author. 26 August 2009.

Interview with Jeff Merghart. The Mark of Kri’s art designer talks about inspiration, hand-animation and more (2002). Web. 18 July 2002. link

Solomon, Maui. New Zealand. The Ministry of Economic Development, on World Intellectual Property Organization Documents: ‘The Protection of Traditional Cultural Expressions/Expressions of Folklore: Revised Objectives and Principles’; and ‘The Protection of Traditional Knowledge: Revised Objectives and Principles’. (2006) <http://www.med.govt.nz&gt;.

“The New Zealand Story.” Videogame: Arcade. Taito: Taito. 1988.

“The Mark of Kri.” Videogame: PS2 Version. Sony Computer Entertainment: Moby Games. 2002.

“The Sims 2.” Videogame: Mac OSX version. Maxis: Aspyr, 2005.