NCSoft’s Songyee Yoon believes in gaming for a better world | The DeanBeat

Songyee Yoon is president of NCSoft, the South Korean maker of online games including Aion, Guild Wars, Guild Wars 2, Blade & Soul, Lineage, Lineage 2, Tabula Rasa, City of Heroes and Fuser.

She is one of the rare women leaders at one of the industry’s biggest companies, and she often gets quizzed by parents about why games are good for children. So much so that she wrote Push Play: Gaming for a Better World, which documents how play is in our DNA.

All mammals play. And since the first humans carved a game board into the dirt, we’ve been told that playing around isn’t a useful way to spend our time. But gaming is in our nature. We game to experiment with ideas and to learn. We play to create new worlds so we can change this one. Gaming pushes us to imagine what more we can become, according to Yoon.

I talked to Yoon, whom I met last year on a trip to Saudi Arabia, in a fireside chat on Monday at GamesBeat Summit 2024. I recalled how she told me that she got a law degree during the pandemic, and it made me reflect on how I got four victories in Call of Duty: Warzone during the pandemic.

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Always focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), Yoon graduated from the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and went on to earn her Ph.D. from MIT in Computational Neuroscience.

A can-do spirit has helped Yoon throughout her career in gaming, which has been perceived as a boy’s club that has kept many talented women from leading gaming companies. She wrote in the book how

We talked about her quest for a more diverse and equitable gaming and tech community, with supportive environments for working mothers. Yoon wants to create the right conditions for welcoming more diversity in both making games and playing games. I thought it was one of the most interesting talks at our event.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Dean Takahashi of GamesBeat talks with Songyee Yoon, president of NCSoft, at GamesBeat Summit 2024.

GamesBeat: Could you get us started by telling us about yourself, the 30-second version?

Songyee Yoon: I’m the president of NCSoft, which is one of the largest MMORPG developer-publishers in South Korea. I’ve been with the company for 15 years.

GamesBeat: I have a copy of your book, called “Push Play: Gaming for a Better World.” What inspired you to write this?

Yoon: It came out in March this year. As I mentioned, I’ve been in the gaming industry for more than 15 years. The reason I thought about writing this book–I started getting so many question from my fellow parents, the parents of my kids’ friends, asking me, “Why are you making games? My kids play games all the time. It’s so evil. It’s because of people like you.” I realized there’s a kind of disconnect between thsee kids, who are in gaming and enjoying it and loving it and learning from it, and their parents, who aren’t necessarily gamers, who are just watching them from the outside and getting frustrated. I wanted to explain what gaming really means, why it’s important in terms of innovation and learning.

GamesBeat: It’s interesting that you connected things, in the book, to the notion that everybody plays. We’re all players. It’s how we learn about things.

Yoon: There’s a saying. If you only work and never play, you become stupid? Is that how it goes?

GamesBeat: “All work and no play…” I forget how the rest of it goes. [Such mindsets, Yoon wrote in her book, make it harder for children to make friends and adjust to social situations. Such children have higher incidences of anxiety and depression].

Songyee Yoon wrote Push Play: Gaming for a Better World.

Yoon: I wanted to put a perspective on the role of play. Play has been an integral part of human evolution for as long as humanity has been around. If you look at how polar bear babies play with each other, they simulate things like the act of hunting when they chase each other. It’s how they develop their muscles and skills. Sea lions, that’s what they do all day long. They simulate the world – something like a shark attacking other sea lions – and learn how to protect themselves. Even before gaming, kids did all kinds of role-playing. It’s important because we learned social norms and how to interact with each other.

That’s always been the role of play in human evolution. Today, it just involves a computer or a device. That’s the most intriguing artifact over time. We play on this platform called gaming, but the role of play and how it affects our learning hasn’t changed.

GamesBeat: How do you bring more analytical or research-oriented answers to the question? Too often people seem to have a politicized answer. How do you rationally explain why this industry is so big, why creative freedom matters, and why this is something people are so passionate about?

Yoon: Anything excessive is bad. I’m not saying we should play only games all day long. There needs to be balance. But if you do anything to excess – if you go running 12 hours a day – that’s not good for you either. You should have a balance in your life. But that doesn’t mean that the value of play in learning should be completely discounted.

GamesBeat: The gaming industry has been traditionally male-dominated. What kind of challenges have you faced as a woman?

Yoon: How many minutes do I have? But personally–there are many things that we could talk about. Personally, when I was growing up, I was always the only woman. I didn’t really think about why that was the case, but it didn’t bother me very much. I really liked mathematics. I liked robotics. I went to competitions every year. And I realized, everyone around me was a boy. There were no girls. When I was in college I majored in electrical engineering. There were six women out of about 220 people in the class, and three of them transferred to other majors. There weren’t many women around me, all the time.

A scene from NCSoft’s upcoming game Project M.

I didn’t think much about it when I was young. I didn’t think of it as a problem. But when I got older–because of that, all of my friends were men. Friends from high school, from middle school, from college. They all got married and there started to be a lot of distance between us. They weren’t as friendly to me once they got married and all of that. All of a sudden I lost all of my friends. I realized it was important to have female friends and invite them into this world that I really liked. That was one motivation.

The other is, we’re in the business of gaming. Half of the population, half of our audience are women. Women designers have a very good understanding of what women are looking for, what resonates. For business reasons we have to encourage a more diverse workforce to participate in game design. If the world is designed in such a way that it’s very hard to make friends with other people, then it’s not going to be very attractive.

I started to make a conscious effort to make a workplace that’s more friendly to women in many different ways. I started a daycare at NCSoft headquarters [applause]. I didn’t think it was such a big deal at the time, but then I realized–the government says you have to provide access to daycare once you have more than 300 employees. But daycares that were made to just check that box were open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. As a result, a lot of mothers were late for 9 a.m. meetings. They got accused of being lazy. I started keeping the daycare open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., with an extra shift of teachers. I hired staff specializing in children’s food and set up other programs tailored to maximize age-appropriate stimulation and education and all that.

Quickly our daycare, even though it wasn’t started by daycare specialists, became the number one daycare in the country. It was featured in a national promotional video about how Korea is a good place to work. We found out that it increased retention in our workforce. A lot of great talent applied to our company because we provided a solution for their whole family. There were a lot of positive benefits. We realized that having a daycare designed from the perspective of parents and family would help with retention at our company, as well as the birth rate, which is a dire problem in South Korea. We started advertising what we’d learned and achieved, and I wrote a book about the daycare program that reached a lot of people. A lot of public daycares started opening at 8AM, including the one in Parliament. It’s had a positive impact on society.

GamesBeat: How would you like to see the game industry evolve when it comes to women and gender diversity?

Project M from NCSoft.
Project M from NCSoft.

Yoon: There are many things, but just like in any other industry, I think it’s important to have more female leaders. I wasn’t really counting the numbers, paying much attention to what’s happening, but there was a news article that compared four big game companies in South Korea. Two of them didn’t have a female executive. We had about 10 at the time. The difference comes from the fact that if you have more women leaders, they’re willing to give other women opportunities. They can work together at attracting more diverse workers.

About 10 years ago or so, I realized a lot of the heroes in our games were all men. Female characters weren’t really aspirational heroes. They were subjects to be saved. I talked to our developers about trying to have the same number of female heroes as male in our games. I expected that it was going to be a very easy, simple conversation. “Oh, that’s right, I didn’t really realize. Let’s make a change.” But instead what I was faced with was a strong pushback. “Why is it better to have equal representation? Why is it better to have more female heroes in our games?” That led me to think a lot about the importance of sharing different perspectives and different value sets openly in our conversations, as well as the importance of having a more diverse workforce, people who pay attention to different aspects of building worlds and games.

GamesBeat: We’ve seen some huge shifts in the game industry in recent years, from a big spike in engagement to layoffs and uncertainty now post-pandemic. What’s your take on what’s happening?

Yoon: It’s a complex question. There are many different factors to attribute. One thing I think about a lot is that we should focus on first principles. As a game industry, we’re supposed to be at the cutting edge of innovation. Our audience is early adopters. They want us to continue to thrive in presenting novel experiences. What’s really fun about games–they come into game worlds to see an experience that they can’t see anywhere else.

It can be difficult to continue that type of innovation. Through the pandemic it was very hard. We had less collaboration. There were a lot of challenges and other factors that influenced what we do. The way for us to thrive is to continue showing innovation and expanding what’s possible.

GamesBeat: Speaking of the pandemic, during those 18 months or so I was quite proud to get about four wins in Call of Duty: Warzone. I learned from Songyee that she got a law degree in the same time. With running NCSoft and everything else that you do, how did you manage that?

The crowd watching Songyee Yoon's fireside chat at GamesBeat Summit.
The crowd watching Songyee Yoon’s fireside chat at GamesBeat Summit.

Yoon: During the pandemic there was no business travel. I had a lot of time. I was interested in it because of AI and the ethical implications. Talking about it at the time, I realized that people had very different values and perspectives. They’re all contributing to implementing how AI is making judgments and influencing how decisions are made in society. I became more interested in how we can come up with an effective policy framework and ensure that we’re working toward a more safe society, minimizing the danger of harm from bias and so forth. I always wanted to learn how policy is made. The pandemic was a perfect time to study further. I had a lot of time and a lot of courses were offered online.

GamesBeat: In your book you talk about AI chat bots. There are fears growing within the industry about increased use of AI in games and in making games. As it relates to the current wave of layoffs and future job prospects, how do you think we should view AI or handle AI?

Yoon: Again, we have to focus on what the gaming industry is all about. AI is a tool. At NCSoft, like most other companies, we’ve had a VP of AI since 2005. We started our AI lab in 2011. It’s always been an integral part of game development. It’s great to have the help of intelligent tools that allow us to create without boundaries. We need to use AI in ways that can maximize our creativity and not be hindered by physical limitations and time restrictions. We can focus on working in a more effective way that sparks creativity and imagination in our audience.

GamesBeat: I met you when we both traveled to Saudi Arabia for a gaming event. What were your impressions of the region when it comes to games?

The crowd at GamesBeat Summit 2024.

Yoon: I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t my first time in Saudi Arabia, but I learned that the average age in the country was only around 35. Most of the young people there want to work in gaming. I think the figure was 80%, which is a huge number. Esports is extremely popular. Young people looking to work in game development, game services, it’s understandable.

It goes back to the notion that gaming is a lens into the future. It shows where technology innovation is going and where the market is headed. It’s understandable, given the young age of the population, that there’s an immense interest in game development. It was very positive. I was pleasantly surprised by the positive reception and their keen interest in gaming.

GamesBeat: Your story, I think, is an inspirational one to a lot of people here. Do you see any parallels between being personally resilient and having a resilient company?

Yoon: The way to stay resilient, like for all of us, is to stay humble. Always listen to the market and the audience. Be ready to adapt. That’s what’s important for our companies. Be true to your mission, to why you’re doing this and what you want to be.