Right from very first concepts of the show, it was important to us that Operation: P.U.G. have a diverse cast of characters. The number of cast members of the “main party” changed over time — The early concept, refined over time, was that each was meant to represent a particular group of nerd tropes, like “roleplayer” or “powergamer”, etc.
As the characters themselves developed we went from these broad stereotypes and introduced more nuance and interplay, the characters began to take on some depth. Wayne, for example, was originally supposed to be the big “roleplayer”, but as the script went along we found he was a better foil for Gnoll if he was focussed more on lore and canon. Wayne still gets into character, but one could argue that Strom is actually a bigger roleplayer than Wayne.
In her early drafts, May was the epitome of the cutsey, kawaii gamer. She owns all the cosmetic outfits and pets. She’s spent a lot of money on Candy Crush. Her apartment is a shrine to Hello Kitty.
Also, she looked like this:
The goal with her design was to lean into Anime aesthetics while still maintaining visual consistency with the rest of the world. As time went on she got a full redesign, incorporating inspiration from Sailor Moon and Gatchaman.
This is the design that we went into production with, and several shots were produced with this version. One day, however, I was looking at a group shot of the cast and something started to bug me.
I spent a long time designing Karen so that her ethnicity would be open to interpretation. I wanted a protagonist who a large variety of people could identify with, except women-hating racists because fuck those people. However as I looked at the group shot I began to think that Wayne was starting to look like our “token” Person of Colour, and that didn’t sit well with me.
We discussed it and tossed ideas back and forth for how to address this, and eventually we decided that May was the best choice to add some more variety into the cast. At this point all of the voice lines had been recorded and it was a little late to make drastic changes, so eventually we came to this, which is the version that appears in the pilot.
All of our characters have their own skin tone, but darkening May’s pallette and making her non-blonde opened up a lot of possibilities. Now May’s background can be any number of things. Her voice patterns could easily be that of a child of new immigrants to the West, but her heritage is, to the viewer, a mystery.
Of course there is a real danger in this approach. Our goal is to be inclusive and diverse, but coming at it from this angle can run the risk of lumping whole groups of people into one basket. Is May Asian? Native American? Pakistani? At first glance she could be any of those and more — but unless at some point we definitely identify her as *something*, we’re watering down her identity instead of empowering it.
And that’s the thing about this. Despite our stated goal of diversity and inclusion, we are still some white dudes who are writing this. We don’t and cannot have the direct experience that a woman in gaming or a person of colour have had, and as a result, I’m not comfortable speaking for them. All we can do is speculate, and while that may be with the best of intentions, it’s still not the voices of the people themselves, and that’s wrong.
As the series develops, we are going to explore everyone’s backgrounds and stories, but before we start on those deep dives I want to make sure we’re consulting with people who have actually had those experiences, not just our assumptions of what it must be like. So yes, there is definitely an answer to everyone’s cultural backgrounds — but that will be dealt with when the time is right.
We live in extremely frightening times, when voices of diversity and tolerance are under serious threat. We are most definitely allies of marginalized people and while we will not presume to speak for them, we can add our voices to support them.
I want to close with a story. I grew up in an extremely middle class white suburban neighborhood. There was one Black family in the area, and that was it. It also so happened that the youngest son of the family was my best friend. I never for a second thought of him in any other way. His family welcomed me. I ate dinners at his house. We both loved Star Wars. I had a Godzilla. He had Shogun Warriors. Fast friends.
It wasn’t until I started getting older that I started seeing how he was treated differently than me — how the neighbors wouldn’t include his family in their curb-side chats about sports and the weather, etc. And it wasn’t until much later that I could give those behaviors the name they deserve: racism. It angered me deeply, and I resolved never to become that. My friend and I lost contact eventually as one often does with childhood friends, but I know for certain that experience shaped my moral compass in a fundamental way.
I found a small way to honour that memory of two nerdy kids who just loved their action figures and cartoons and didn’t care what colour the other one was. The name of my friend?