Recreating a Māori world with virtual blocks

(Last Updated On: September 6, 2019)

Microsoft is launching a whole new world to explore in Minecraft: Education Edition. Ngā Motu (The Island) will offer students a taste of what life was like in a traditional Māori pā thanks to this virtual world’s creator Whetu Paitai.

Whetu Paitai’s always been good at building. In fact, he might still be a builder in Australia if it weren’t for two things: a broken leg and a promise kept. Thanks to life’s strange twists he’s back home in the Coromandel, but instead of putting up houses, he’s reconstructing the world of his Tāpuna (ancestors).

The path was laid almost a decade ago, when Whetu was in hospital with a broken leg. A university lecturer in the same ward raved to him about Minecraft. When Whetu suggested his daughter try the game she was instantly hooked – and so was he. The pair bonded over their shared passion for creating digital worlds.

Fast forward a few years and Whetu, now a father of four, often wished his tamariki could connect with their culture by learning to speak te reo Māori, something he’d never learned to do. A promise to his wife saw them return to New Zealand and he’s never looked back since.

Now Whetu has not only reconnected with his culture and heritage, immersing his children in te ao Māori (the Māori world), he’s found a new calling: designing games that introduce his culture to countless other children. His latest is a brand-new world built for Minecraft: Education Edition, Ngā Motu, giving students a taste of what life was like in a traditional Māori pā .

Drawn to technology

Whetu is the founder of Piki Studios, a game design company he runs while home-schooling his children on the Coromandel Peninsula. The leap from builder to educational games developer may seem like a big one, but Whetu remembers being drawn to technology from an early age.

“When I was a kid, I enjoyed computers, but the geeky stereotype didn’t fit with the Kiwi view of being a boy. I grew up in Harataunga (Kennedy Bay), surrounded by bush. Computers went on the back-burner.”

When he returned to New Zealand, and still a massive Minecraft fan, Whetu was seduced afresh by digital technology, so he retrained. Armed with new digital skills, he found himself helping out with the admin at his children’s Māori-language preschool, and a lightbulb went on: “If I could be involved that much in my kids’ education, how much more involved could I be?”

Whetu realised that by marrying his passion for IT with education, he could help other children learn the language and culture too by creating fun new resources.

Value in little things

And so, his game building began. He started by creating an online game, Mahimaina (Minecraft in te reo Māori), to help children learn the language, joined by around 100 students. More games are set to follow, both online and traditional board games, which Whetu hopes will be used by schools and whānau around the country.

“There’s great value in little things,” he says. “For a child, seeing their culture represented on major global platforms is incredibly empowering.”

And it was this value that was exactly what one of the world’s largest tech companies was looking for. Last year, Microsoft came knocking. Would Whetu like to create a uniquely Aotearoa resource for Minecraft: Education Edition?

A voyage through Aotearoa

“It blew our minds,” said Whetu. “I knew Minecraft, but it wasn’t till we explored Minecraft: Education Edition, tweaked it, played with it and saw all the additional things it could do that we realised all the potential. This will open up so much more space for Māori and all Kiwis to learn and play in the Māori world.”

Minecraft: Education Edition brings the world of Minecraft to classrooms around the world, offering hundreds of free lessons as well as a global educator community. Immersive game-based learning helps students build key 21st century skills including creativity, collaboration and STEM. Educators across New Zealand are already using Minecraft to transform learning, from learning programming with Hour of Code to designing sustainable villages and even reconstructing Gallipoli in-game.

Whetu is the first to create a brand-new world immersed in te ao Māori. Characters based on his children and their friends guide young players as they walk through Nga- Motu, from the impressive waka hourua at the beach to the pā with its wharenui (large meeting house) decorated with ka-whaiwhai (painted panels) and tukutuku (woven lattice). Pātaka, rua (food storage areas) and a hāngī pit for cooking can also be found.

Kumara and kunekune

Whetu’s younger daughter requested her favourite bird, a pīwaiwaka, you can interact with a native kunekune pig and even an extinct moa, our famous giant bird, complete with sound recreated by the experts at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Children can learn words in te reo from the guides or via in-game exercises.

Whetu’s younger daughter requested her favourite bird, a pīwaiwaka, you can interact with a native kunekune pig and even an extinct moa, New Zealand’s famous giant bird, complete with sound recreated by the experts at national museum Te Papa. Children can learn words in te reo Māori from the guides, or via in-game exercises.

In future iterations, intrepid voyagers will be able to visit the taniwha in the harbour and collect kaimoana near some pink terraces that may remind New Zealanders of the long-lost Pink Terraces, destroyed by a volcanic eruption more than 100 years ago. All of these will add to children’s glossary of Māori words and understanding of Māori history and narratives.

“I would love schools to build their own pā or wharenui, explore the world on their own and learn how to care for the moa.

“We’re believers in learning being organic, being able to explore all the elements, because nothing in our lives exists in isolation. Our mission is for everyone to be able to play these games and see more than just what a waka is – but to see how it fits into that world.”

A “serendipitous” opportunity

This philosophy is exactly why Microsoft New Zealand’s Sam McNeill and Anne Taylor came to Piki Studios.

“Whetu’s so passionate about education and helping all kids, not just his own, understand our indigenous culture and that really shines through when you speak to him. He’s a natural teacher,” said Anne, Education Lead for Microsoft New Zealand. “The creativity and attention to detail with which Whetu has approached this project just blew us away. What he’s created goes way beyond what we could ever have expected.”

Whetu acknowledges getting the call from Microsoft was daunting, being a small family business dealing with a large multinational corporation. It was a relief to find he was working with people who shared the same values and goals.

“A better opportunity couldn’t have presented itself. Straight off the bat, Sam and Anne knew te ao Māori, believing in dealing honestly and genuinely with indigenous people, and we never lost any of that closeness that is so important. It was truly serendipitous.”

Keeping Dad on top of his game

The group were determined to ensure all the translations were accurate. Two professional translators, Hemi Kelly and Piripi Walker, worked with Whetu and the team to translate the language pack for the game, including the instructions. There were even some new words for some of the more Minecraftian items.

“It was important to make sure te ao Māori was respected as its own being, the mana and cultural IP of each artefact upheld and maintained throughout the process.”

The most difficult part was the timeframe, just five short weeks. Luckily Whetu was supported by other Māori working in the tech space, making it a truly collaborative process. And, of course, his own children acted as in-house quality assurance – keeping Dad on top of his game.

First Harataunga, then the world?

Soon Nga- Motu will reach an audience beyond New Zealand, as Piki Studios is now an official member of the Minecraft Partner Program, enabling it to add to the resources available in the global Minecraft Marketplace. For now, the game will be available free to classrooms in New Zealand, as part of Microsoft’s Schools Agreement that provides resources such as Minecraft: Education Edition to every State and State-Integrated school.

“Ngā Motu is a truly amazing resource for Kiwi students and teachers, and we know they’re going to absolutely love exploring and building on this world,” added Anne. “It’s not just Whetu’s children. We showed it to some of our global colleagues and the excitement in the room was just palpable.”

Not bad for a boy from Harataunga.

Article supplied by Microsoft.

For more information on Minecraft: Education Edition in New Zealand go to or visit Piki Studios  at

Minecraft Workshops: Sign up to learn after school
Microsoft is running a series of after-school workshops for teachers to learn about using Minecraft: Education Edition. No prior experience is necessary. Sessions run from 4-6pm and are being held at various locations around the country, from 16 September to 12 November. Find out more.

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