Gender in Apocalypse World

I’ve recently been playing Apocalypse World in our weekly playing session. It is a generally good game, at least if you prefer the style: violent, apocalyptic, sexy (certainly the first two, not necessarily the last one).

It is also interesting when it comes to issues of gender. And it is definitely gender, not sex, that is in question. Let me elaborate by describing the character creation process:

You choose a name for the character from a list of names provided. Most of them are simply absurd enough to be gender neutral - like objects from a time past, with purpose long forgotten. I’m also told Baker plays around a bit with this in his writing, playing around with gender assumptions. I chose the name last in creating a character, but opted for “Man”, adding “the” to it after consulting the other players.

A bit later in the character creation you choose what your character looks like. This is also where gender is defined, so it is simply cast as a question of appearance. This is highlighted by the choices available:

Most characters can choose from three of the most common ones: man, woman and transgressive. Some have additional options of concealed and ambiguous, and one the character types can also choose androgynous. This is a surprisingly wide variety to choose from. I chose “woman”, wanting to see how a strong female character would fare in a world gone bad. I have a weakness for irony, so this is also why I chose the name.

Apocalypse World has rules dealing with sex - not the act itself, but for the game mechanical consequences. Usually this is a simple (but well thought out) benefit to one or both of the characters, usable later in the game. The game is also neutral with issues of sexuality: there is no heteronormative bias to be found. Sex is a free-for-all.

But the game is hardly free of gender-related issues. One of the character classes players can choose is battlebabe. While you can choose a male battlebabe, it is clearly created as female stereotype (after all, it is battleBABE). As an example of their abilities: battlebabes get more armor the less clothes they wear. It is not the only character type that uses sexuality as a tool, but it is the one that is most clearly gender-stereotyped.

It is not very subtly done, but then again, Baker isn’t known for his subtlety. I’m sure he didn’t set out to create a more gender-balanced game than rpg’s usually are, but the results are generally not that bad.