Meet Corrinne Yu, the influential programmer who gave up nuclear physics for play

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

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.”

“I thought that I should have a proper scientific career and contribute to science in a meaningful way. Programming didn’t feel serious enough as a professional path.”

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.”

Halo 4 review

Since moving into the game industry Yu has created graphics engines for games like Borderlands and Halo 4.

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 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.”

At Naughty Dog, Yu is encouraged to contribute more than just her talent for programming to the development process.

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.”