GUMPTION AND GAMES

Chris Weaver MALS ’75, CAS ’76 says he’s often in the right place at the right time. But he also sees things others don’t and has had a remarkably creative career.

Chris Weaver MALS ’75, CAS ’76. Photo by Zack Weaver.

Not many successful people describe themselves as being like Forrest Gump—the hapless main character of the eponymous movie—but Christopher Weaver says he’s been just as fortunate.

In the epic 1994 film, Gump always seems to be in exactly the right place to witness—and even influence—history: shaking JFK’s hand in the White House Rose Garden, saving his friends in battle in Vietnam, and buying shares in a fledgling computer company called Apple. And like Gump, Weaver, MALS ’75, CAS ’76 has fortuitous timing—his work has shaped the trajectory of products, lives, and even an entire industry. Thirty years ago he transformed video games, and now he has his eyes on using games to teach STEM to preschoolers and retrain the brains of vets with PTSD. “I fall into all these things. I don’t go looking for them,” he says.

Weaver’s biggest right-place, right-time moment came in the mid-1980s when he tripped into the world of video games. He had a small group of engineers working as consultants. There was some dead time and one guy asked if he could write a sports video game. Weaver gave him the okay, but later, when he looked over the man’s shoulder, what he saw was static and boring because it used a table of canned interactions. Weaver wondered why game programmers didn’t use physics to make the games more realistic and provide infinite variability.

Weaver knew almost nothing about football and little about video games, but he knew physics. The result was Bethesda Softworks’ Gridiron, the first game that mimicked how players really interact on the field. It wasn’t pretty—PC graphics capability was meager and players were represented by dots on the screen—but Weaver’s ideas were a breakthrough. If a quarterback used an appropriate amount of force, the ball would make it to his receiver. When a bigger, faster lineman went up again someone smaller and slower, the bigger guy would win: mass and velocity at work.

Pretty soon the games were flying off the shelves. Eventually Gridiron became the core of Electronic Arts’ John Madden Football, the best-selling football games of all time. Today sports players take for granted the realistic movement that Weaver helped pioneer.

In the mid-1990s, Bethesda moved from sports games (Wayne Gretzky Hockey and NCAA Basketball, among others) to role-playing games. A 2011 article in Inside Gaming Daily explains exactly how providential that new product was, too. “[It] was going to be a gladiator combat game, in which the player would slowly build up a team to tour the world’s stadiums in battles to the death. But as the game progressed, they decided it needed more context, so they threw in a story. And to flesh out the game a bit, they threw in some side-quests you could do between tournaments. Before they knew it, the story and the side-quests started getting more in depth and more fun to play. Eventually, the tournament was dropped altogether, and almost by accident, Bethesda had a first-person [role-playing game] on its hands,” the article read.

Weaver’s mind moves quickly from one subject to another, nothing linear or predictable about where he goes. That’s not unexpected, given his unusual path in life. He grew up in New York City when it was gritty and textured and bohemian. His father was a Broadway producer and publicist, and his mother, a singer and actress. They ran in interesting circles and exposed young Weaver to a range of very accomplished adults who took his ideas seriously and encouraged his budding intellect.

His father’s best friend was a “Damon Runyon character” who drove a taxi and graduated from City College as valedic-torian at the age of 60. “Uncle Mack” was a master-level chess champion and noticed Weaver’s affinity for science and nurtured it. He found other adults willing to tutor young Weaver or talk to him. He suggested Weaver apply to MENSA, where he occasionally played chess with Isaac Asimov, the biochemistry professor and science fiction author. Every Sunday was hours of math and puzzle games around the lunch table.

When it came time for high school, Weaver had the opportunity to attend the renowned Bronx High School of Science but was encouraged by his mother to maintain a balance of arts and science, so he instead chose the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art (which later merged with the High School of Performing Arts and moved to Lincoln Center). So, while he continued his music education, he also did microbiology research and entered the New York Science Fair in his senior year, winning citywide science awards and numerous national awards.

After his undergraduate work at Hobart and William Smith, he began graduate studies at Wesleyan. The Graduate Liberal Studies (GLS) program, where he could study physics, computer science, and Japanese ethnomusicology, was run by James Steffensen, an erudite former Rhodes Scholar. “He saw something in me he wanted to nurture,” Weaver says.

Weaver was also mentored by “a humble titan,” the late University Professor of the Sciences Max Tishler.  The former president of Merck Labs often invited Weaver to dinner to share stories about friends he had in Japan and a range of other topics.

And the late professor emeritus Paul Reynolds and his wife Anne-Lois, Depression-era children of farmers in Iowa, taught city-bred Weaver old farming techniques at their rural Maple Shade Road property—using matchsticks to increase sulfur in the soil to grow peppers or Epsom salts to improve eggplant production.

Because his intellectual life was re-kindled here, Weaver continues to have a close, respectful relationship with the university. “Wesleyan is not interested in mono-planar people.…It is an environment whose soul is intentionally diverse and variable,” he says.

Last winter, he gave a talk—mostly to students interested in computer science—titled “The Dynamics of Development and the Role of Chance in Science and Invention.” “Wesleyan is a great place to do things that are really offbeat,” Weaver told the roughly 150 students assembled before him. “Who wants to talk to someone who is chronically myopic and sees only one part of the greater whole? To understand a problem, you have to dimensionalize it.”

The slides for his talk included a lesson on the history of computer science, from before Charles Babbage to the world’s fastest supercomputer. Along the way, he tied in the development of Babbage’s Analytical Engine to von Leibniz’s 17th-century staffelwalze reckoner, the development of the music box in 18th century Switzerland, and the French Jacquard loom with its wooden block pin mechanism and its influence upon Hollerith’s punch cards, which Weaver used as a computer science student in the 1970s at Wesleyan. “I really do not believe there is anything that is a truly novel idea,” he told his audience. What matters, Weaver emphasized, is a combination of deep historical knowledge, good timing, a creative, non-linear way of thinking, and luck.

After he finished at Wesleyan in the late 1970s, Weaver went on to do postdoctoral study at Columbia and later at MIT. While in New York, he needed a job with flexible hours, and someone suggested a spot with NBC as a part-time engineer given his experience building radio and television stations in college. He brought in his résumé and the hiring manager took a polite look but said they didn’t have anything available at that time.

“I must have looked so crestfallen that he took pity on me,” Weaver recalls. “It was like a scene from a movie. The interviewer said, ‘Do you think you could be a director?’ I had no idea, but I desperately needed a job, so I said yes.”

He was hired as an associate director of NBC’s News and Information Service. “On my first day I said to the people in the control room, ‘Please help me. I don’t know what I am doing but really need this job.’ And within two weeks, these people taught me to become a competent director.”

It was the first of many places where he put his somewhat quixotic skill set to work. One challenge was perfectly timing each segment so that commercials and station identification would fall at exactly the right time. “Today computers do most of the work. But in those days, you were given a stop watch and had to back-time everything to the second,” Weaver recalls. “Once I understood what the requirements were, I would optimize my actions during programs to have inserts occur exactly on time. I do not believe I ever had to fill out one of the dreaded FCC reporting forms for missed timing.”

That job also set Weaver on course for future jobs in network television. At ABC—just like at NBC—his interviewer did not have the right job open, but hired Weaver anyway: “His name was Marvin Mord—head of research—and he said, ‘I have the weirdest feeling that if I don’t hire you, I will kick myself in the ass.’ So he hired me and told me to just look around and let him know what I wanted to do.”

Within weeks, Weaver had figured out how to hack into the third-party system that tracked demographic data on viewership for ABC. With access to the raw data, Weaver wrote a program that helped the network dramatically optimize viewership metrics for advertising, giving ABC a huge ad sales advantage over the competition, resulting in a dramatic increase in revenues. The president of the corporation, Elton Rule, came to visit Weaver in his office. (Weaver says “office” using air quotes, as it was more like a closet—and packing more than two people into it looked like a Marx Brothers routine.)

After the meeting, however, Weaver was summoned to the “37th floor,” where he met with Chair of the Board Leonard Goldenson, who gave orders to Weaver’s boss: Weaver could work on whatever he wanted within the company

Weaver ended up revising the way ABC network research used data analytics and advising the chairman on communications technology while creating ABC’s first Office of Technology Forecasting, which still exists today.

In the early 2000s, Weaver left his operational work at Bethesda and took on a new challenge—working as an instructor and research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s given me a platform that I would otherwise not have had,” Weaver says. “My legacy will be hundreds of students, some of whom will say, ‘If not for you, I wouldn’t have done this.’”

At MIT, Weaver has found another place that embraces his passion for both humanities and technology. Professor Lionel Kimerling, department chair of the MIT Microphotonics Center and leader of the Communications Technology Roadmap (CTR) group, on which Weaver sits as a board member, says Weaver’s unique vision is vital in the CTR group, which is predicting the future of the communications industry—how much energy it will need, how many data centers—50 years out. He brings computer science, government and regulatory background, and an uncanny ability to see beyond the crest of the horizon.

Weaver also gives the final lecture each year in an undergraduate course, Principles of Engineering Practice. The course is designed to push students past regurgitating facts and toward creative problem-solving. Weaver—who has created his own major company—“pulls it all together and sends kids out with enthusiasm,” Kimerling says. At the end a group of students from MIT travels to Japan to work with a partner team at the University of Tokyo.

“Because of his varied experiences, it is amazing how many different things he can make substantial contributions on,” Kimerling says. “He is a renaissance man, interested in everything probably at a much deeper level than most of us can go.”

All of that sounds pretty mushy,” Kimerling continues, “but when you consider the fact that he built essentially a $1 billion business—you can’t do that without a lot of discipline as well as passion.”

Weaver’s next chapter is to apply lessons learned from over 20 years of making videogames to do everything from teaching STEM education to young children; to improving plasticity in the elderly; to helping soldiers readapt to society. One contemplated use is to help veterans who have been scarred by enemy attacks when vehicles slow down. When they return stateside, these veterans often ignore stop signs and red lights, endangering themselves and others. A special driving simulator can help reprogram a soldier to a civilian environment through gradual exposure to similar scenarios with reinforced feedback. Earlier this year, Weaver was asked to co-direct a new center at MIT dedicated to using game techniques in the development of innovative ways to enhance learning

Perhaps Gump’s most famous line was “Mama always said, ‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’” Weaver’s life plays out that adage writ large: A graduate of an arts high school who used physics to change the video game industry. A successful entrepreneur who left his company to teach. And a man who has made a substantial mark in the world but is still is looking to touch the future—willing to reach into the box to see what surprise is next.

Christine Foster is a freelance writer who lives with her family in Durham, Conn.

 

HELP FOR A CLASSMATE IMPRISONED IN A COUP

Chris Weaver not only reshaped the video game industry. He also used his right-place, right-time synchronicity for even more noble purposes—helping to convince a Third World ambassador to intervene on behalf of a Wesleyan classmate in need.

The classmate was Appianda Arthur PhD ’77, a Ghanaian national and fellow ethnomusicology graduate. Before he started Bethesda Softworks, Weaver did a stint as the chief engineer to the Subcommittee on Communications for the U.S. Congress. Arthur meanwhile had been elected to public office in his home country. But it was a time of turmoil in Ghana and the democratically elected government was overthrown in a military coup. Arthur was incarcerated as a political prisoner. But he was able to smuggle a message to Weaver that he was in jail and that fellow parliamentarians were being shot. He begged his friend to please get his wife and children out of Ghana.

Weaver used his political connections to get Arthur’s pregnant wife and three children out of Ghana and paid for them to fly to the United States, where they lived with him for almost a year. In the interim, he lobbied his congressional bosses to intervene on Arthur’s behalf. Arthur eventually escaped from prison and was smuggled to the Ivory Coast, where Weaver helped him stay afloat financially while the UN High Commissioner was petitioned and eventually granted Arthur a precious visa to come to the United States, where he was reunited with his family.

“That’s how helpful and committed as a friend Chris was and is now,” wrote Arthur, now director of institutional linkages and business development for Ghana’s Regent College of Science and Technology.