Holly Jennings is the author of the Arena series: the ongoing story of elite virtual gamer Kai Ling and her quest to master the future’s most brutal eSport. The newest installment, Gauntlet, finds Kai facing an even more challenging version of the game as she deals with the pressures of newfound fame.
In the following interview, Jennings and I discuss her favorite video games, women in competitive eSports, and whether real tech inspires her writing.
Unbound Worlds: Before you got into writing the Arena series, you were a hardcore online gamer. Do you have as much time to do that, anymore? What are you playing right now, if so?
Holly Jennings: I still game, but definitely not as much as I used to with my writing. Ten years ago, whenever I wasn’t working or sleep, I was gaming. World of Warcraft was my drug of choice, but I also played GTA, Fallout, Call of Duty, you name it.
Nowadays, gaming is more of a casual hobby for me. I host a regular Twitch stream every Saturday night. For the stream, I mostly play Borderlands 2 but I recently tried Portal 2 and got completely sucked into the game. Definitely a new fav for me.
UW: Virtual Gaming League champion Kai Ling is a woman in a male-dominated sport. How do your own experiences as a female gamer inform your fiction?
HJ: Being a girl playing, I’d never really felt out of place. Growing up, the majority of my friends played games. So, it never seemed like a male-dominated hobby to me. However, once I started watching eSports and competitive gaming, I realized how few female players competed in the pros. Of course, instead of feeling defeated or out of place, it sparked the creation of a Ronda Rousey type character thrown into a virtual battle arena. She’ll break your bones, laugh it off, and make you love her for it.
UW: It seems like virtual reality gaming is coming into its own, lately. I know the technology in your novel is far more advanced that what we’ve got in the real world, but I’m curious if you keep up with current tech trends. Do any of them help you when it comes to envisioning the tech of the Arena world?
HJ: As a sci-fi writer, I’m always interested in the latest trends in technology. You never know what new invention or advancement will spark the plot of my next novel.
To be honest, the idea of full immersion gaming came from Neuromancer, not a tech trend. It wasn’t until long after I’d started the story did I hear the rumors of at-home VR headsets being developed. It did floor my motivation, though, and really made me feel like I was writing about something that could come true some day.
UW: Kali is starting to feel a lot of pressure from sponsors and the press. Just over the past year or two, I’ve seen professional gamers becoming better known in the public, only to crash and burn. Even more broadly, I see this kind of thing happen a lot with internet-based celebrities. Do you see any parallels between this and the characters of your series?
HJ: Yes, completely. The pressure Kali faces from sponsors and the press was directly inspired by an eSports documentary that focused on the corruption within the industry and the darker side of competitive gaming. As I developed the story, I came across a few retired competitive gamers who were willing to give me feedback. While they helped me iron out the kinks, they were surprised how true the novel was to reality and the pressures gamers face when they go pro.