Holi festival 2013. Photo by Olivia Drake MALS ’08.

Christopher Weaver MALS ’75 CAS ’76, a video game pioneer

[Christopher Weaver MALS ’75 CAS ’76] By Aditi Kini '13

While you may not recall the name "Christopher Weaver," he might've already touched your life. Christopher Weaver MALS ’75 CAS ’76, who founded a Bethesda Softworks, created the physics-based sports simulation on which Madden and other games were built. He's overseen, created and produced many games like The Elder Scrolls. He established the concept of the open-world game. In fewer words: the man is a video game pioneer.

Christopher was recently featured by the "That was Me" series in "How one man's vision helped changed the Videogame industry." Scroll below for the video.

Christopher's contributions changed the shape of the game industry and pop culture - and even how scouts reported player abilities for NHL teams. In an interview with Wesconnect, Christopher Weaver talks about being a pioneer in the game industry, his grad years at Wesleyan, and the great trade of teaching.

WESCONNECT: Madden has had a huge impact on culture today. Were you aware of all the future applications of your physics sports simulation? Has it been used to create anything that has surprised you?

CHRISTOPHER WEAVER: At the time we developed the physics engine to provide constant variability, we were so busy creating the technology that we really had no time to sit back and look at it from a larger philosophical perspective. The fact that I knew relatively little about football ended up being a big plus as I had no preconceived notions of how other sports games of the time worked. It was more of a logical inference. The ability to provide a player with the same relative sense of excitement and influence over the outcome of the (sports) simulation seemed like a natural extension of what any sports player would desire. So I used that ideal as our target. When others in the industry experienced what we had achieved, they liked it so much they adopted our approach. Electronic Arts had been struggling to build a football game and after their President played Gridiron!, we were invited to build what came to be known as Madden Football. The rest, as they say, is history.

In answer to different uses of the engine that surprised us, it was actually the different uses others saw that were impressive. As one example, shortly after we created our hockey simulator, Wayne Gretzky Hockey, we found out that numerous coaches from actual NHL teams were using it to simulate different player lineups against other teams. Some coaches actually told us that the way we had created player “signatures” (differentiating players through unique numerical sets utilized by the computer in its calculations), caused them to change the way their own scouts reported player abilities for prospective draft picks. That was a real eye-opener. Our game was accurate enough to be used by professionals as a tool. A modified engine was even used to assist the US Army in building real-time simulators for M1 Abrams tank training.

WC: Your academic background is very diverse, as is your career development. At Wesleyan, you were a Daltry scholar and earned dual graduate degrees in Japanese and Electrical Engineering. How do you classify your expertise, ranging from engineering to software to language to media studies to inventions? How did you create your own niche?

CHRISTOPHER: I was the kid in the proverbial candy store at Wesleyan. There were so many opportunities to do interesting things that I decided to try as many of them as possible. I found out that my many interests were facilitated by the culture and great teachers. Somehow, my interests—from Japanese ethnomusicology to physics to engineering to computer science, all seemed to somehow be related. I was very fortunate to be mentored and (later) hired by some wonderful people who provided me with opportunities that no one my age had any right to expect. But I found out quickly that if you strived to always be part of the solution in an organization, your bosses would respect and elevate you—regardless of age or relative inexperience. In my earlier days, having a unique set of engineering, software and language skills, I ended up rebuilding the ABC network’s research department’s use of Arbitron data, and ultimately advising the Chairman of the American Broadcasting Company on communications technology. I actually created their first Office of Technology Forecasting, which still exists today. Similar opportunities followed.

WC: How has teaching [Comparative Media Studies at MIT] influenced your work, and vice versa?

CHRISTOPHER: Similar to Wesleyan, MIT is a place with a student body of high intellectual and inquisitive capabilities. My students keep me on my toes, which forces me to remain technologically current and socially aware of the relationship between technology and society. But they also respect the fact that I chose to teach after being out in the “real world”, accomplishing certain personal goals and creating what has become a multi-billion dollar software company. I consider teaching a great trade, as I definitely get back as much as I give.

WC: Any particular memories of Wesleyan that stand out?

CHRISTOPHER: I have a special place in my heart for Wesleyan. It provided a safe place for me to explore intellectual interests and helped turn them into passions. When I did well, the University rewarded me with scholarships and similar incentives. I had the benefit of a fantastic Dean, James Steffensen, who permitted me wide academic latitude to pursue diverse academic areas simultaneously and mentored me along the way. I had the good fortune to live off campus with professor emeritus Paul Reynolds and his wife Anne-Lois, who treated me like a son and greatly influenced my approach to academics and life (they taught a city boy how to farm), and I had the additional benefit of being very close to the late, great, Max Tischler, who took me under his all-encompassing wing and stretched my scientific abilities in many diverse areas.

My time as a grad student at Wesleyan was an annealing process both as a student and young man. I made some wonderful friendships that have lasted to this day, and will be forever grateful to those who shared their expertise and time in order to mentor a passionate, but occasionally unguided missile of a student toward his personal unified field theory.

Watch Christopher Weaver on "That was Me" on Mashable:

Image: screenshot from video

Share this link: wesconnect.wesleyan.edu/news-20140730-christopher-weaver

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Editor's note: The first print of this article erroneously identified Christopher Weaver's class year as "MA '75." Christopher's correct degree dates are "MALS ’75 CAS ’76."

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