The in­flu­en­tial pro­gram­mer who gave up nu­clear physics for play

When she was 12 years old, Cor­rinne Yu in­vented videogames. Her fam­ily, which had moved to Cal­i­for­nia from Hong Kong when she was younger, was too poor to buy a com­puter. As such, when Steve Jobs and Steve Woz­niak do­nated a num­ber of Ap­ple II com­put­ers to Yu’s ju­nior high school in the early ’80s, she was pre­sented with an op­por­tu­nity. “My school looked at these com­put­ers like they were doorstops,” she re­calls. “It was a com­pletely com­puter-il­lit­er­ate place. They sim­ply asked me whether I could make some use of them.”

Yu, who was al­ready deeply in­ter­ested in elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer­ing, reg­u­larly dis­man­tling elec­tronic de­vices to ex­per­i­ment with mod­i­fy­ing them, took up the of­fer and taught her­self to pro­gram by cre­at­ing a top-down Amer­i­can foot­ball game. “I didn’t know that this was a videogame,” she says. “I didn’t know that any­body else was mak­ing this kind of thing. I just wrote things that I thought were in­ter­est­ing – games for my friends, my broth­ers and my­self. For ex­am­ple, I played a great deal of Ad­vanced Dun­geons & Drag­ons. It made log­i­cal sense for me to write a dun­geon crawler in 3D. It wasn’t un­til much later that I found out other people and even com­pa­nies also made games. It never oc­curred to me be­fore then.”

Al­though her first lan­guage is Can­tonese, Yu soon be­came a flu­ent pro­gram­mer. (“I still do all my arith­metic in Can­tonese,” she says. “The spo­ken lan­guage is a lot closer to math­e­mat­i­cal no­ta­tion than English.”) Recog­nis­ing her talent, the school be­gan to pay her to write soft­ware. “I wrote word pro­ces­sors and pro­grams to keep track of stu­dent grades,” she says. “Any­thing that could be au­to­mated.” She saved the in­come her work gen­er­ated and, while still at­tend­ing school, gath­ered enough to buy her own Ap­ple II. “Ap­ple’s gen­eros­ity changed the course of my life,” she says.

Yu re­calls im­me­di­ately favour­ing pro­gram­ming over fid­dling with elec­tron­ics. “It’s far more ex­per­i­men­tal,” she says. “You can make changes and get feed­back im­me­di­ately.” De­spite this, she never con­sid­ered her new­found talent as the ba­sis for a ca­reer. “I thought that I should have a proper sci­en­tific ca­reer and con­trib­ute to sci­ence in a mean­ing­ful way,” she says. “Pro­gram­ming didn’t feel se­ri­ous enough as a pro­fes­sional path.” Her pas­sion for sci­ence de­vel­oped at a young age when she read an ex­pla­na­tion of Ein­stein’s the­ory of rel­a­tiv­ity in a Chi­nese sci­en­tific en­cy­clopae­dia. “The ex­pla­na­tion was so clear even I could un­der­stand it as a child,” she says. “This started off my fas­ci­na­tion with math and physics.”

As such, pro­gram­ming was a recre­ational pur­suit for Yu, who hoped to be­come a nu­clear physi­cist, ac­tively pur­su­ing the ca­reer. One of her high-school teach­ers also worked as a univer­sity pro­fes­sor. With his help, she was able to take math­e­mat­ics classes at grad­u­ate level while still study­ing at school. At Cal­i­for­nia State Polytech­nic Univer­sity, she was in­vited to an in­tern­ship at a na­tional lab­o­ra­tory to carry out nu­clear physics ex­per­i­ments. But she con­tin­ued to code, de­sign­ing pro­grams that could process the large amounts of data col­lected by the ex­per­i­ments.

Her ex­em­plary work led to a key role on Amer­ica’s Space Shut­tle Pro­gram at Rock­well In­ter­na­tional Cal­i­for­nia. Yet even while cre­at­ing tools to model shut­tle be­hav­iour, Yu main­tained her in­ter­est in games. “I pro­grammed games to get away from work­ing on the space shut­tle,” she says. “It helped me to re­lax or stave off bore­dom.” She kept her games to her­self, show­ing them only to a few close friends. But word spread and soon enough she re­ceived a num­ber of of­fers to work in the game in­dus­try. “I kept putting them off be­cause it was just a per­sonal hobby for me. But even­tu­ally I got pulled into mak­ing games and it ended up be­com­ing my main ca­reer path.”

Her choice to turn her back on these early re­search projects was a tough one. “I had to go through a lot of in­ter­nal ra­tio­nal­i­sa­tions to jus­tify my de­ci­sion. But now I feel that I’ve seen the im­pact games have had in the world, I don’t feel con­flicted any more. Mil­lions of people en­joy play­ing things that I helped make. Per­haps it makes them hap­pier people and they im­prove the world.”

For Yu, who has cre­ated graph­ics en­gines for the likes of Border­lands and Halo 4, the tech­nol­ogy is just a means to an end. “I want to make games that cause people to think. I want to in­spire people to have a dis­cus­sion about things they hadn’t con­sid­ered be­fore. That’s im­por­tant for me as some­one who started out want­ing to make some­thing in the world. How do I turn my talent into some­thing that’s more pro­duc­tive than sim­ply mak­ing tech­no­log­i­cal progress?”

She be­lieves the act of in­creas­ing graph­i­cal fidelity in games is fun­da­men­tally tied to this broader goal. “If I can in­crease player agency

“I pro­grammed games to get away from work­ing on the space shut­tle. It helped me re­lax”

by mak­ing things less static and more re­ac­tive to what the player does, then I am con­tribut­ing to the nar­ra­tive that games are try­ing to tell, and the emo­tional res­o­nance,” she says.

But this means it’s cru­cial to find stu­dios where she’s viewed as more than a math­e­mat­ics nerd. “One of the stereo­types is that all graph­ics pro­gram­mers are a cer­tain type; it’s a stronger stereo­type than gen­der,” she says. “People see lim­i­ta­tions when they think of graph­i­cal en­gi­neers. They don’t think we have a cre­ative in­cli­na­tion or talent. You’re dis­missed as a math nerd.”

This frus­tra­tion is one of the rea­sons that Yu joined Naughty Dog in 2013. The de­vel­oper en­cour­ages all dis­ci­plines to be in­volved in the nar­ra­tive process. “Two weeks ago, I was in­volved in a de­sign dis­cus­sion and nar­ra­tive, de­spite the fact I am a pro­gram­mer,” Yu says. “I can con­trib­ute to the di­rect con­ver­sa­tion it­self: what do I want play­ers to think about and feel? I can add to that. It’s cru­cial to me to have that per­sonal op­por­tu­nity to make a dif­fer­ence.”

Nev­er­the­less, Yu continues with her per­sonal game projects, for which she acts as de­signer, pro­gram­mer and artist. “I need to keep mak­ing games in which I do ev­ery­thing my­self,” she says. “Right now, I’m mak­ing iOS games just for my friends and fam­ily. That’s how I started: mak­ing bou­tique games for a tiny au­di­ence. I still do this. It’s just a way for me to scratch an itch. I use these as sketch­pads for ideas. I started a long time ago and I’ve never stopped, even as I made block­buster games in my full-time job.”

De­spite achiev­ing a great deal dur­ing the course of her ca­reer, from help­ing to launch space shut­tles to help­ing to launch mil­lion-dol­lar game fran­chises, Yu still has as­pi­ra­tions. “I’ve started com­pa­nies,” she says. “I’ve in­flu­enced hard­ware ar­chi­tec­ture. I’ve shipped pro­gram­ming en­gines. I’ve made games that were crit­i­cally ac­claimed. It’s not so much that I don’t dream any more, but there is a very short amount of time be­tween find­ing some­thing I want to do and do­ing it. It’s one of the rea­sons I’ve come to Naughty Dog. The next thing is what I want to do right here and right now in this com­pany.”

Yu be­gan her videogame ca­reer af­ter a stint at NASA, her early work in­clud­ing Border­lands and Broth­ers In­Arms at Gear­box. In Novem­ber 2013, she joined Naughty Dog and is now work­ing on graph­ics cod­ing for PS4

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