Maru Nihoniho: Bringing Gaming Heroines to Life

Maru Nihoniho is the founder and managing director of Metia Interactive, a gaming company based in Auckland.

She founded the company in 2003, after growing up with a keen interest in technology and design. A creative mind as well as an entrepreneur, Maru is also chief designer and producer, and has a lot of input into the development of characters. 

Maru produces games and multi-media applications for both entertainment and education. In 2011, a game developed by Metia Interactive won a World Summit Award, winning in the category e-Health and Environment. The game, SPARX, is an educational tool developed to help young people combat depression, and has been proven to have a significant positive impact on young people aged 12 – 19.

We caught up with Maru at the Mind Lab in Auckland.

The gaming industry's traditionally quite a male-dominated sphere. Have you faced any challenges breaking into the sector as a woman? How have you dealt with those challenges?

When I started in the games business, I didn't realize that it was a male-dominated industry. In fact, I thought everyone made games. I remember when I attended my first game conference, I was only one of a few women there. There must have been about 1,000 people there, and 990 of them were male.

There were awkward moments because you go to these events to network and you suddenly find yourself in a big room full of lots of men, and you might be one of only two or three ladies in the whole room. You think to yourself, “Well, I need to network. Where do I start? How do I start? Do you just approach these people? These men, and get in on their conversation, and act like you're a man too?

Learning it was a male-dominated industry, and feeling awkward whenever I attended events, didn't stop me. Although it can be challenging at times, I don't think I would have changed my mind about entering the industry had I known beforehand.

I think if a woman is confident enough and believes in what she is doing, then she can do anything in any industry. A little support from friends and family goes a long way.

Like most of the world, New Zealand has a low proportion of female developers. How do you think we can encourage more women to go into game development and other tech careers?

I think encouragement needs to start at a young age, at primary school age or even before. I think technology, engineering, science isn't encouraged enough to our girls in school. You can see how tech-savvy they are with devices – iPhones, iPads - and how they're able to teach themselves how to use them. I would give my daughter my phone when she was very young and she was able to navigate her way through easily. We can encourage young girls to look at the technology from a behind-the-scenes view. Telling them, “Instead of just using it, did you know that you can create games, apps, or even devices that will work?”

Parents have a big role to play.  I was encouraged at a young age when I was growing up. My father was an aircraft engineer and he took me to work with him, so I would play in the aeroplane and pretend that I was fixing electronics. My parents didn't push me one way or another, but they could see that I was interested in creative things such as drawing and painting.

The subject of The Guardian is a female Māori warrior named Maia. Do you think there's a role for female heroines in games to empower young women and encourage them into technology or gaming careers?

You see strong female characters in television programs, in the movies, and books, comics, novels, so there's definitely a place to have heroines in games too. Sadly female characters in games are usually secondary characters who need rescuing – they are the damsels in distress. For me personally, I love to see stories where it's a heroine who saves the world and saves the boy. If more girls can play and identify with what a female character stands for, it could be a platform that could encourage more girls to become interested in gaming.

In real life, women do superhero things every day. Every single day, whether that’s saving an animal, or just looking after a family. But these things are not talked about, not shown.
Māori Warrior Maia from The Guardian

Māori Warrior Maia from The Guardian

How did the character Maia come to life? Were there real-life inspirations for her? 

I wanted to make a big epic game that was going to follow a character through a journey. And my first thought, naturally, was that this character was going to be female. I didn't think whether she was going to be a he or a she. She was just going to be a she from day one.

I wanted to build into the Maia character things that I have experienced in my life, and things that are important to me. There are some parallels with my story, in both struggles and achievements.

My mum's been a huge inspiration for developing Maia's character. One of the strengths about Maia is her knowledge of her culture and of Māori martial arts. And my mum’s been very strong and focused on her culture, on the Māori language and on tikanga.

So I went and asked her, “I'm going to design this character, she's going to be the heroine of this game. Can you help me name her? She's going to face a lot of things in the story, and she's going to have to be brave and a little bit risky.”

And she said, “Oh, a bit like you.” After a bit more discussion, she suggested Maia –  Maia means brave, risky, and courageous in Māori. And I was like, Done. There's my character. She's the heroine of my story and her name is Maia.

What could New Zealand do within the next few years to encourage and support more women in entrepreneurship?

One of the ways New Zealand can support young women into entrepreneurship is to really provide encouragement. When I was starting with my business, there wasn't a lot of encouragement or people saying, “Go for it!”  People were usually asking, “Well, have you thought about this, have you thought about that?”

There’s especially a lack of early support – for me, the support came later when I'd already decided I wanted to get into business and I had already done a lot of the planning.

If someone shows an interest in running their own business, they need to be encouraged straightaway.

There is also a lack of capital in New Zealand to support new ventures. Eventually, I had access to mentors, business planning, and invitations to meet-ups and conferences. But one of my biggest obstacles in moving forward quickly was the lack funding.  I had to go overseas in search of capital before I got my first game published worldwide.

Which Kiwi women entrepreneurs do you admire, and for what reasons?

I really admire Frances Valintine (read our interview with Frances here). Frances is tackling things hands-on by getting parents, teachers and children excited about technology with The Mind Lab – not just using technology, but helping students to see they can make technology. She is encouraging children to become tech-savvy at a younger age. It’s such a good starting point and the children just love it. We need to have more Mind Labs!

Do you mentor people? If so, what are you looking for in a mentee or a mentor/mentee relationship?

I do mentor people. I give talks at schools and industry talks, and am always happy to help. But often it’s more on a casual ‘if-you-want-to-have-a-chat’ basis, rather than on a professional basis.

I have people come into my office, sometimes they’ll sit down for 30 minutes and ask a couple of questions. Other times they'll be with me for a couple of hours wanting to know about my journey, what I did and how I started.

The thing I tell them, is that you don't know until you get there. You've just got to start. When you think about things too much, it's sometimes enough to put you off.

Any last piece of advice for young women who are thinking of going into technology or business?

I’m trying to teach my daughter right now, that she can be anything she wants to be. It’s difficult, because she’s really shy. And I’m like, “Yeah I’m just going to do it. Whatever.” That’s just me.

The message I want to send to young women is if you want to get into business or technology, and you’re passionate about it, then you just do it. In fact, that's the meaning of my company's name – Metia - is to go and do it.

Especially in those moments when you’re feeling encouraged, when you’re feeling motivated and when you believe this is what you’re going to do, just do it. Just start it. It’s your life.
Characters from SPARX

Characters from SPARX

Frances Valintine: Arming Young Women with Technical Confidence for a Changing World

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