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Tuesday 23rd June 2020: A world first online gaming platform, Katuku Island, is being developed to support indigenous education in New Zealand.

Katuku Island is an original storyline adapted to a player survival game with an indigenous overlay. Players must make their way to the only uncontaminated place in the world, Katuku Island. Along the way players must create their player avatars designed to look like Māori warriors with tribal tattoos, design Māori weapons, build tribes and escape the crumbling cities. Throughout the game, the player must undertake game challenges, like literacy and decision making. It uses gaming, fun and cultural elements to push the learner to excel in problem solving.  

Dr Phyllis Callaghan and her late husband Matua Craig Callaghan have both worked in the education sector and wanted to support Māori education. Initially this drove them to develop a textbook called 16-year-old Māori Boy, which has supported not only Māori youth at school, but also Māori in the justice system, on their educational journey.

The idea has been constantly evolving since then and has now morphed into developing a 3D Indigenous game that supports educational development in literacy, in an environment that signifies Māori and Indigenous cultural codes in all aspects of the game.

Covid19 highlighted the disparities in access to online learning for some. Māori in particular were affected, due to a lack of access to the internet or tools, such as laptops or tablets, to participate in distance learning.

Game creator, Dr Phyllis Callaghan says that during Covid19, Māori were not set up for such a huge shift in technological learning.

“We created Katuku Island to bring cultural literacy to a technological platform that uses Māori Toi graphics, sounds, characters, tribal tattoo and indigenous challenges. As an indigenous researcher and business owner, I wanted to make a difference”.

“Māori do not have positive educational statistics. Much of the research tells us that Māori do not fare well in the subject of English, and the gap in the New Zealand schooling systems between Māori students and non-Māori students is widening. Poverty plays a huge part to these statistics. But gains are being made and the environment changing. Take for example grants for marae to have access to the internet. That’s a game changer for our tamariki (children)”.

Katuku Island, which has been touted as a world first by Callaghan R & D, meets global tech stretch disciplines (the research or the innovation behind the tool). Elements of tech stretch involve collaboration, learner agency, goal setting and real-time assessment.  

When the cultural gaming elements and the tech stretch components collide, we expect maximum learning outcomes, creating the impetus, self-efficacy and agency for the learner to undertake gaming and educational challenges confidently and successfully, thus increasing learner effectiveness and learner resilience to become the master of their domain.  

The game is also backed by 10 years of award-winning Masters and Doctoral research, which focusses on motivational cultural codes, like Toi, which enable success for Indigenous peoples. With over 50 years combined teaching experience and the research, it is well founded by both practical and academic discipline.  

“The science and data collection became both quantitative and qualitative. Too many times we allow quantitative to be the measurement, but you can’t accurately measure trauma within a mathematical equation, Māori have known that mai rā anō (from long ago). The learning journey from Katuku Island could help to unpack past trauma or bad educational experiences and move players forward, creating better social and economic outcomes for themselves”.

All graphic designers working on the 2D graphical interpretation of the game hail from Matua Craig’s whakairo arts programme based in Gisborne. These same boys had negative experiences in mainstream education but found support and ‘their way’ through Art, and with the support of both Craig and Phyllis.

The team have a hui in Rotorua 27th – 28th June to finalise the Katuku Island sketches before these are sent to a 3D animation studio in New York City and the prototype game will be developed.

Dr. Callaghan says this could not have been achieved without the help of MBIE and the VMCF grant she was awarded earlier this year. While the majority of the mahi (work) has been driven by Dr. Callaghan’s company, the VMCF grant means the game can now reach for the stars and bring to life 3D and gaming elements which would not have been possible beforehand.

“The support means we can get the best in international expertise when it comes to the 3D animation and also allow our wider Māori whānau to be part of the engine within their own hapū and Iwi narratives”.

In the future, Dr. Callaghan sees no reason that this format could not be used to track tīpuna (ancestors) and their history. Completely re-skinned with their own maunga (mountains) and whenua (land) in the game, or tīpuna to teach tamariki (children) of the Iwi, their history and their own learning and development journey. Creating strong identity platforms for tamariki to get some insight into who they are, and where they have come from. An Iwi’s Historical Account in an interactive and technologically advanced way.

“Initially this was aimed at Māori in a way that engages them to want to learn. But ultimately, this can be re-developed to fit any indigenous culture anywhere in the world. Using key figures, landscapes and ancestors along the way, highlighted with their own visual interpretation of their culture”.