Author and Diversity Consultant Quinn Titus Discusses ‘Monster Prom’ and Creating Diverse Games

Author and Diversity Consultant Quinn Titus discusses the process of diversity consulting and their work for the popular game Monster Prom.

Sean:
Can you introduce yourself and say what you do?

Quinn
I am Quinn Titus. I am an author and a writer for video games. I’m also a proofreader and diversity consultant for video games on LGBT and trans and non-binary characters.

Sean
How did you first become a diversity consultant?

Quinn
It’s a bit of a roller coaster for how it happened. When I was still in college, I saw that Beautiful Glitch, the studio that creates Monster Prom, was looking for people to apply to writer positions in their studio, so I started applying for that.

While I was working with them on my application (which ended up taking a lot longer to complete because I had a bit of a learning curve), they mentioned that they needed somebody to go over this plot line that they were doing for a trans character named Zoe, who is basically the monster world version of a genderless Eldritch Horror, but then Zoe realized that her true purpose was to be a high school girl. So she’s kind of a fantasy version of a trans character, and they wanted somebody who could vet that sort of plot line because none of the people on the team were trans.

Zoe from ‘Monster Prom’

I mentioned to the studio that I was non-binary and they said, “Well, this might be a good way for us to give you some work to do while we’re waiting for your skill to improve in writing and it’s not like you’re just kind of hanging in limbo with us.” So that was my first experience doing diversity consultancy, at least professionally, and that’s how I stayed on the team.

Sean
Have you worked on any other games as a diversity consultant?

Quinn
As a diversity consultant, yes and no. Yes, on another game called Max Gentlemen Sexy Business, though that wasn’t reviewing for LGBT and trans issues. A friend from Monster Prom sent my contact information to the developer of Max Gentleman and said, “Hey, this is a very socially conscious person I know who might be able to tell us if there’s anything yikes about the game.” So, I proofread their game, and I did some vetting and diversity consultancy.

Sean
When you’re doing this kind of work, when do the companies reach out? For example, when a studio like Beautiful Glitch says they want to vet a character in a specific storyline, do they usually reach out to consultants in the early writing stages? Or are diversity consultants hired on as more of a late-stage check, once the idea is fully formed.

Quinn
Ideally, I would be involved in the early writing stages. That isn’t always the case and that’s usually a bit of a hindrance, because if you’ve already got this fully developed character and storyline and then you go to a diversity consultant and ask, is this cool, if it’s not cool, then you may be forced of push back your production if you’re going to trying to fix it. Or even worse, the company might just say, “Okay, we’re not going to fix it,” and they put it out anyway.

Luckily with Beautiful Glitch, they had the idea in mind for the character, but they hadn’t actually started writing some of the bigger plot lines in which her gender identity is fully discussed. There were some things that were partially written that I looked over and I was able to say, “Hey, this isn’t cool. This particular line isn’t going to work,” but it was easy to fix. With the stuff that I did with Max Gentleman, it was more just minor stuff, so luckily that wasn’t a problem.

But I have other friends in the industry who have told horror stories about “I did consultancy for this one character and they fell into every stereotype and it’s godawful. I approached the person who was writing the game or the movie or whatever and said, ‘this isn’t cool.’ Then they decided they weren’t going to fix it because there wasn’t enough time.”

Sean
So there is pushback when attempting to work with writers, just based on how far they are in the process and how much time there is?

Quinn
Exactly. Part of being a diversity consultant is you have to hope the people who are hiring you are conscious enough to know that they should probably bring you on pretty early, so that you can teach them not to make mistakes before they even happen.

If I were talking to somebody who’s writing a trans character, I’d ask, “Well, tell me about what the character is like, and I can tell you right off the bat if you’re going to fall into any harmful tropes or stereotypes or say anything that you shouldn’t say, and then we can nip all that in the bud before you put it into a script and then we won’t have to do a bunch of rewriting.”

Sean
What in your mind makes a good sensitivity reader or a diversity consultant, and what qualifications do you think are necessary? For instance, is your work based on your own experiences, or is it based on training or research you’ve done?

Quinn
I think you should consult for the character traits you yourself fall into. Regardless of how socially conscious I am or how much news I read, I would never do diversity consulting for a character of color because I am not a person of color. Likewise, I would hope and expect that people who are heterosexual are not trying to do diversity consulting on a homosexual character, and so on and so forth.

I think some training is necessary as far as how to proofread something, and maybe doing research into some of the political attributes of the person or the character that you’re consulting on. For example, if I was trying to do consultancy for a person who’s writing a gay character in the 1950s, I would need to do research on what life was like in the 1950s for people of that group.

But a lot of it, I think, comes down to your experiences because you’re going to have to speak your own truth. Maybe I am hired for a job, and I think that I’m going to be a good fit for reviewing a character. But then I read the script, and I may have to say that I can’t honestly speak to some things the person is trying to write about. Maybe I can refer them to somebody else I know. Or maybe I can bring on another person to talk about that aspect of the character that I can’t really get into and we can work something out.

Sean
So in general, it sounds like when a company wants to have a good coverage of diversity readers, they’ll have to farm out different parts of the story potentially to different readers.

Quinn
Yes, potentially. There was a specific situation when Beautiful Glitch was writing a plotline about a character who was Latino. It wasn’t such a major part of the story, but she dealt with a racist slight and had to deal with it. While they never asked me to do diversity consultancy on that, we talked about bringing someone else on for that because everyone in the team can’t really speak to that.

I did do some consultancy on that character’s sexuality, but I could never say, “Also I’ll tell you if we’re being racist,” because I don’t know. That would be a circumstance in which they might want to find somebody who is a person of color who could look at that aspect of the character’s story and tell them what may or may not be going wrong.

Sean
Is that usually how companies operate, then? They’ll hire a primary diversity reader who will then refer sections to other readers? Or will the studio usually bring on multiple people?

Quinn
I think what ends up happening is they start with just one person and then, as both the reader and the studio realize what else might need to be reviewed about the character, the studio might bring on more people.

I don’t want to go ahead and say that is exactly what every company does or what people always do because I don’t want to be wrong or make a claim that I can’t support. But at least, from what I know about the experiences that I’ve had as a diversity consultant, and the people I have talked to, is usually they start with one person and kind of hope that that person is going to be able to do all of the consultancy. Then the consultant might say, “Okay, we might actually need to bring in someone new or someone else to talk about this aspect of the character.”

Sean
Do you ever feel pressure not to bring on someone else because of budget or other issues?

Quinn
I’ve never had to bring on someone else. But if I’m a person of integrity, and being a diversity consultant is all about trying to treat the characters and the people that you’re representing with respect, I would still probably want to say we should bring on someone else for this.

At least with me, I can’t speak for everybody, but the reason I want to do this work is to make sure that the characters that we create are true to the people that we’re representing. If I’m going to sit there and knowingly give advice on a character that I can’t 100% say I feel connected to this, then I’m not really doing my job.

Sean
To that end, how do you judge what is a successful representation of a minority versus what isn’t successful?

Quinn
Well, with the minority groups that I fall into, I basically just judge based on my own experience with that particular kind of person, be it personal experience or what I know of other people and see when it comes to LGBT characters.

I am an LGBT activist, I used to be part of speakers panels and stuff like that, so I feel confident that I know about the experiences of other queer people that are not necessarily me, and I know a lot of the history about queer issues. So, I can confidently determine whether something seems like it’s falling into a stereotype of a character.

If you have a gay character that’s extremely flamboyant and calls everybody “honey” and “sweetie” a lot, that’s kind of a stereotype. Or if somebody says a slur towards the character or says something that’s not necessarily a slur, but can be interpreted in a very rude way, that might be something to look out for.

I think that also a big thing to look for when you’re a diversity consultant is, if a minority character is being slighted, whether or not it’s coming from the mouth of somebody that we should be rooting for. Using Monster Prom as an example, there are scenes where the trans character gets called names, but the hurtful comments are always said by this one character that we are supposed to dislike, that’s supposed to represent everything that’s horrible about the internet actually.

Sean
I think my boyfriend referred to that character as “the forum troll” character.

Quinn
Oh, yeah, absolutely. So, any time that character says something rude to Zoe, you’re supposed to know that the statement is not reflective of the opinions of the characters that you’re supposed to like and, most importantly, the opinions of the developers. But if one of the characters that you, as the player, like says something inappropriate, then that’s when I would say, “We got to change this.”

Sean
What are some of the more common stumbling blocks you’ve seen by companies when they’re trying to include diverse characters?

Quinn
I think sometimes people try too hard to seem woke. I sometimes fall victim to this too, when I write characters of color, because I’m white. The writer tries too hard to go in the other direction. As a diversity consultant, it’s kind of an endearing problem to see because it’s like, “Oh, I know that you really want to do this and you really want to seem nice and I get that, but we have to make this stuff more organic.”

Using gender as an example, you’ll see writers try to have their trans character speak frequently about how they’re transgender. Like, “yeah, I don’t need the gender spectrum. I’m stronger than that.” And it’s like, cool. I see the message you’re trying to put out, but I think we can make this seem more organic and less forced and it will be all the more endearing for that reason.

I think another common problem would be bringing on diversity consultants too late, or assuming that they know more than they actually do. Because you can be the wokest person in the world, and that’s great, but there are still going to be things that you won’t necessarily understand if you haven’t grown up as a member of the specific race or the sexuality of the character that you’re trying to portray. Even if you don’t want to go to all the trouble of hiring a diversity consultant, you really need to actually do your research and talk to people who know more than you about a specific kind of character in order to portray it or to portray them well and realistically.

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Sean
That actually goes to something I’ve said in my own reviews of media, which is there’s a difference between having a character who is gay and the gay character.

Quinn
Yeah, exactly. Because that would be whenever somebody makes it over the top or I don’t know, it seems way too performative.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is an example of a show that has characters who are gay versus stereotypical gay character. There’s a difference between performative wokeness and saying, “Look at our game. We have so many diverse characters for you to enjoy.”

Actually a great example would be Overwatch. Not to dis Blizzard on main, but they have the whole thing of Tracer being a lesbian. But that never really comes up in the game. It’s only in the comics. Or the scene in Marvel’s new movie where they had the one guy mentioned that he went on a date with a man for 15 seconds and then that was never addressed again. That’s absolutely performative wokeness, in my opinion.

Sean
For me the example that springs to mind is a comment someone made on Twitter a while back: Rowling confirms Dumbledore is gay in all of her stories, just not in her books, movies or any other associated media.

Quinn
Exactly that sort of thing. You can pretend to care about minority characters all you want, but unless you actually make an effort to include them in your narrative in a strong, necessary way, then you’re not fooling anybody, or at least not anybody important.

Sean
Building on that, when you have a game that’s released, or is in public beta and you get feedback that a depiction is a problem, how do most companies handle that? Have you ever seen diversity consultants pulled in after a public release? Or is that almost always done earlier?

Quinn
I’ve heard stories of people who were pulled into a job or offered a job after a beta was released and people had told the developers, “Hey, this isn’t cool.” I would not be opposed to taking the job like that.

But it would be scarier because then not only are you trying to fix the script that’s already finished, but the public knows the script was once flawed. If you’re pulled into a script that’s problematic and the public has already seen that it’s problematic, then that’s on you to fix it and if you don’t fix it, then that’s your fault.

But I think companies that are more mature will usually come back and workshop the problematic script again to make it better. We had something similar happened with Monster Prom’s newest game where we’re having a non-binary character, and some people who have recorded gameplay have misgendered that character a lot. So I’ve been talking with some of the people that I work with about how can we make it more obvious that this character is not binary without beating the audience over the head with it and not making it so “performative.”

I think that whenever you put something out into the world, if it doesn’t land perfectly, unfortunately you’re going to have some people who will say, “Oh, this will never be redeemed,” because we live in a cancel-culture society. But the best thing to do is just to sit down and say, “Okay, we need to make this better. How can we make it better and how can we make it better in the sense that it’s not like we just said, ‘Oh shit, we’re losing sales. We need to fix this.'” How can we show we genuinely care that this was a problem? We need to acknowledge that this wasn’t good enough the first time and make it better the second time around.

I think in that sense, diversity consultants can also become a kind of PR bandaid, which is a weird way to say that, but it’s true. If you work on a project that wasn’t perfect the first time, then sometimes that’s what ends up happening.

I’ve heard stories where the project was just so irredeemable, or maybe the diversity consultant tried to help and the company refused, that the consultant has said, “I can’t work with you. I don’t want my name on this. I don’t want to be the diversity consultant who helped make a racist/homophobic/whatever game.”

I guess in that regard, you also got to know when to walk away. You got to know when to say, “My reputation is not worth this paycheck.”

Sean
In those instances where there are problems, do you ever get asked to consult how to handle the fallout? Is that a thing that a diversity consultant would be asked for?

Quinn
I have offered advice on how to handle fallout. Normally, I just give my best advice on here’s what you can say to sound genuine. You want to project the message, “I know I messed up and I’m sorry and this is not a representation of who I am or, more importantly, who the company is as a whole. This doesn’t reflect our true beliefs or our true opinions.”

I would just kind of coach someone on how to address the controversy, how to maybe tweak what has been previously established or how to retcon the previous script to make it more okay, and just kind of hope for the best.

The diversity consultant is rarely, if ever, the actual person who is going to tell the public about what’s happening with the game, so you kind of have to act as like script writer in that sense. But, hopefully if you’re working for a good company, it’s less, “I’m going to tell you word for word what to tweet” and more “These are the things that I think need to be addressed and this is how you can say things tactfully and get the people back on your side.” You have to hope that the people that you’re telling this to are going to take your advice seriously and do right by what they’re trying to create.

Sean
That’s a good question on its own right—do the companies that are hiring diversity consultants generally do it because they want to have actual improvements? Or do they want the privilege of saying “look at us, we hired a diversity consultant.”

Quinn
I think that it’s usually the people who are trying to improve. The people who just want that stamp of, “Oh, yeah, we’re diverse” are not even going to bother finding a diversity consultant. They’re going to think, “I know what being gay is like. I’m going to put a gay guy in the game and he’s going to do this, that and the other thing and nobody’s going to tell me that I’m wrong.” Then they put out a game with “the gay character” (TM).

It’s both a blessing and a curse; the companies that are going to hire diversity consultants are already more socially conscious than companies that wouldn’t even bother. So, on the one hand, that’s good for me because I have some confidence that the company that hires me is not just going to be a horrible job where I’m never listened to. Unfortunately, the people who really need diversity consulting are rarely going to be the people who ask for it, or at least not in time. If those people want a diversity consultant, it’s after they’ve already put up something that’s extremely problematic and they’re like, “I want you to fix this. You have six days.”

Sean
How do companies find diversity consultants?

Quinn
Unfortunately, it’s often through the grapevine. I attended a diversity consultant panel at PAX Dev, and I really don’t want to give specific information because I’m going to get it wrong, but there are some diversity consultants who are trying to create an online database of diversity consultants categorized by what they could consult on, so people who can consult on race, people who can consult on disabilities, can be easily found by companies. If that ever does get up and running, which, fingers and toes crossed that it does, that will hopefully be a much better resource. Usually diversity consultants really just kind of have to be their own agents and their own bosses and kind of hawk for work themselves on, say, Twitter or social media or on their own websites.

A lot of diversity consultants have their own inner web of people that they know. They might say to a company, “Maybe I’m not a person who could talk about this issue, but I have this person in my back pocket who I trust very much and I totally recommend that you talk to her.”

Hopefully, and I think that most diversity consultants will agree, we care more about putting up games that are socially conscious than necessarily making the most money, so we want diversity consultants to be easily accessible. Because if we were about making the most money, we probably wouldn’t have gone into the job about social justice.

Sean
Fair point. I say as a reporter who covers diversity, yeah, I know that feeling.

Quinn
Yeah, you get me. You feel it.

Sean
Do you believe overall the industry, especially the video game industry, is getting better about including diverse voices?

Quinn
As with this entire conversation, this comes with the caveat that I can only speak about my own opinion, but I think that the indie scene is much more first voice inclusive and socially conscious than the AAA scene. Because games that are made by big companies that have lots of big names behind them end up falling prey to what’s the most advertisable—what’s going to make their shareholders the happiest? What’s going to make the generic player the happiest? Unfortunately in the minds of those people, the generic player is not a disabled, gay person of color who suffers from PTSD.

However, indie projects, which are much more often passion projects of small groups of people who have a specific story they want to tell, tend to be more socially conscious for that reason. They don’t feel the same pressure from a bunch of people who have stock in their company, because their company is six people in a basement.

That’s why I personally, even just in my own life, enjoy indie games so much more than AAA games and those are the only games that I have ever consulted on. Just being one person, one small queer, I would say that indie games are more inclusive games. If you want a game that you think is going to be inclusive of your sexuality or of your experience as a person, I think indie games are going to be where you will find it more quickly or more satisfyingly.

Sean
That’s definitely what I’ve observed; there are lots of creators creating diverse queer-friendly content, but it’s generally a lot easier to get something good if you’re not in the mainstream content.

Quinn
Yeah, exactly – it’s why I’ve only worked on indie games and why I generally only even play indie games.

Sean
Do you have anything else you want to add, either about the industry, or getting into this kind of work?

Quinn
If someone wants to try to get into diversity consulting, or that’s an interest that they have, you should definitely not give up on it. But also know that it’s all about your passion for the work, for creating stories about that sort of a character or that sort of experience.

If you wanted to be a diversity consultant, understand it’s not the easiest job. It’s definitely not the highest-paying job. But it’s some of the most rewarding work that I do. Because there have been people who have messaged me ever since we released Zoe, the trans character, or Milo, the non-binary character. and have said to me, “Thank you so much. I am so excited to see somebody like me represented in a piece of media that I already loved.”

It’s just one of those jobs that when you get that moment of somebody telling you, “You made a difference in my life,” that’s just better than any headache that it might give you.

And if you’re a diversity consultant, or if you are a person who hopes that games get more diversity consultants, support each other and support the games that have them. Tell the creators that you love what they’re doing, that you love that they’re being socially conscious and just don’t give up on work that rewards you spiritually.

 

Quinn Titus is an author and a professional diversity consultant for video games. They wrote I’ll Make You a Deal, a queer love story available on Amazon, and has consulted on the popular game Monster Prom.

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This post was last modified on February 9, 2020 8:03 pm

Sean Z

Sean Z writes about fandom, media, and queerness for GeekDad. When he’s not researching fandom, he enjoys listening to video game music, playing boardgames, and writing code.

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