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Professor Alex Irvine on his eclectic career and nurturing USM's game creators

USM's Alex Irvine

Alex Irvine built a career by morphing media: turning movies into books, comic books into games and games back into books.

He's about to begin work on a novelization of Marvel's movie of "Doctor Strange," he's writing a game version of the popular TV show, "The Walking Dead" and he's writing a graphic novel history of baseball.

That's in his spare time.

The English lecturer — he teaches classes in fiction writing and world masterpieces — is also morphing in his USM job.

Irvine is helping to craft a new program at USM: Gaming and Simulation Design.

He and other faculty spent the summer and fall designing a formal minor and major curriculum which they are taking through the standard faculty academic review process this fall and winter. Their shared goal is to have both a minor and a major available for students starting in the fall semester, 2017.

The aim is to teach students skills in every aspect of game creation: programming, design, writing, art, business and more. In the final year, students would create a professional quality game.

Irvine would be part of the new program's faculty.

"I'm straddling the line between the English Department and something that doesn't exist yet," he said. Not that it bothers him. He's accustomed to career left turns.

The Michigan native earned his undergraduate degree in theater and acted for a while before he began writing, beginning with short stories and then novels. His first novel, "A Scattering of Jades" was published in 2002 and was well-reviewed.

"It's kind of a secret, supernatural history kind of thing," Irvine said. "It's about P.T Barnum and slavery and Aztec mythology. It takes place in New York and Kentucky and places in between, mostly in the 1840s."

It led to other writing, including a Batman novel. A lifelong fan of the character, Irvine savored the job.

"Who wouldn't want to do a Batman novel?" he said.

Batmen led to an Iron Man book. Iron Man led to a Transformers book. The writing included 11 Marvel novelizations aimed at kids.

Meanwhile, Irvine morphed again. He worked on writing the alternate reality game, "I Love Bees," which tugged at fans of Microsoft's Halo franchise with real-world challenges. For Marvel, he wrote the game "Avengers Alliance." He also did some work on "Project Titan," the predecessor of the extraordinarily popular game, "Overwatch."

For all of the work, his challenge has been to connect his storytelling and craft with some of pop culture's most committed fans.

"You say, 'This is a universe that a lot of people really love,'" Irvine said. "Those people are going to be really emotionally invested in what you produce. And so, you want to justify that."

He hopes to watch students create their own beloved worlds.

Of course, some USM students have already been working on games.

USM, for close to five years, has had a maker's space on campus called the CI2 lab. Its students have worked with faculty and community partners on projects as varied as games, apps and artificial limbs.

The Gaming and Simulation Design Program would build on their work.

"The goal is to turn out graduates who understand the team dynamics of how games are made," Irvine said. "My goal, ultimately, is entirely utopian."

In his own experience, Irvine has watched games fail or take too long to develop because their creators had trouble working together.

"I've been in a lot of meetings where some guy has a great idea and someone else goes, 'Nope. That doesn't work on our end," he said. "And that's the end of the conversation."

When team members understand each other's jobs -- even though they may specialize in something different -- they can anticipate obstacles, he said.

And they can have something to share when they've earned their degrees.

"If you demonstrate that you do it, that's still the most attractive thing to most game companies," Irvine said. "You can tell an employer, "Look at this game I made."