Game changer: How Christopher Weaver transformed video games and game studies at MIT
In the mid-1980s, an electrical engineer and avid sports fan named Ed Fletcher approached his boss with a simple question: The communications consultancy firm Fletcher worked for had just acquired a Commodore Amiga computer. Could he use it to build a football-themed video game? Christopher Weaver SM ’85, the company’s founder and president, had a background in physics, mechanical engineering, and computer science but had spent most of his professional life in broadcast television. He had never played a sports video game before, but he agreed, and months later saw Fletcher’s work.
“It was really very boring. He put in the same inputs and got the same outputs,” Weaver explains. “I said, look, let’s build a physics engine bounded by the rules of football and see what it looks like. It will be a hell of a lot more dynamic.”
The result was Gridiron!, the first sports game to incorporate real physics into gameplay. While the game’s graphics were primitive, Gridiron!’s pixelated players were modeled off of statistics from real-life football stars, giving players different masses and accelerations. Players with larger masses could block and break tackles, but speedier players could beeline to the end zone, adding a never-before-seen layer of reality-based strategy to sports simulators. Weaver formed Bethesda Softworks, released Gridiron! as the company’s first title in 1986, and watched as the game captured attention from football and video game fans as well as Electronic Arts, then a goliath game company that hired Weaver’s team and used Gridiron!’s engine as the basis for the original Madden game series. Suddenly, Weaver was a game pioneer entirely by accident.
“Sometimes not having a lot of knowledge about an area can be a good very useful thing,” he says. “It forces you to look at it with untutored or naive eyes.”
After more than 30 years in the game industry, Weaver still tries to approach the field from new angles, and he encourages his MIT students to do the same. A longtime research scientist and lecturer in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program (now Comparative Media Studies/Writing), Weaver spent nearly two decades at Bethesda, overseeing seminal titles including the massively popular Elder Scrolls role-playing game series, before co-founding the multimedia development company ZeniMax Media. Weaver returned to his alma mater in 1998 to teach courses in game theory and development, as well as media systems.
Weaver’s work, both as an instructor and in helping to create MIT’s game studies curriculum, has rippled through the industry. Started informally in the late 1990s and early 2000s by Henry Jenkins and William Uricchio, the flexible curriculum originally centered largely on game design and research. Weaver brought a much-needed industry perspective, and as game engines like Unity and Flash enabled small teams to make interesting projects, he began serving as an advisor on the GAMBIT Game Lab in addition to teaching an always-popular game development course. Since its inception, the MIT games curriculum has transformed to include both game theory and design courses as well as coursework in virtual reality, data storytelling, and games for social change.
Doris C. Rusch, a game designer and founder of the Play for Change lab at DePaul University, connected with Weaver after taking his class in 2006.
In that class, “I learned that all my lofty, artsy ambitions, they have to measure up to reality,” Rusch said in a CMS/W interview. “If the game is not entertaining, then nobody’s going to care about all of the positive stuff you’re trying to put into it. It’s about keeping that engagement and the game play front and center.”
Troy Ko, who graduated from the MIT Sloan School of Management in 2011, recalls Weaver challenging existing paradigms.
“When you meet him, just be prepared to think critically,” Ko says. “Be prepared to come in with an open mind, because he’s going to just introduce all of these ideas and try to push you and nudge you in different directions to really question the norm and how things are done.”
Today, Weaver splits his time between teaching in Comparative Media Studies/Writing — he has long taught CMS.610 Media Industries and Systems: The Art, Science and Business of Games — and the MIT Microphotonics Center. He also teaches STEM development at Wesleyan University and co-directs the Videogame Pioneers Initiative in the Lemelson Center for the Study of Innovation and Invention at the National Museum of American History. His goal is to broaden the reach of games and help students understand how to apply the power of game tools to break ground in areas ranging from education to medicine to senior care.
“There’s a lot of research now that is demonstrating that if you want to teach, simulate, or train, if you’re capable of using some of these tools, you’ll have a much higher success ratio than standard methodology that’s been developed during the Industrial Revolution,” Weaver says. “We have a whole 21st century to bring students into.”