As part of Call of Duty: Black Ops - Cold War's (opens in new tab) campaign, players can determine their secret soldier's background in a light RPG-esque character sheet. Players can create a name, choose their skin color, their origin story, and—a first for Call of Duty's singleplayer mode—their gender.
The usual male and female options are there, as well as a non-binary option. Characters will refer to the player with the proper "they" and "them" pronouns in voice and text throughout the campaign to reflect the choice. The addition of the non-binary option stand outs, particularly in response to criticisms from the Black Ops - Cold War reveal back in August.
During the reveal, the gender choices were limited to Male, Female, and Classified, which implicitly reads as non-binary, albeit in an unsavory way. In a VentureBeat roundtable Q&A following the reveal, creative director Dan Vondrak justified the hazier "Classified" choice more as thematic flair, not necessarily a focused attempt at representation. "If we don't have something somebody wants, then let's let them leave it classified so they can be that mysterious, shadowy Black Ops character they want to be."
That explanation didn't cut it. Obscuring such a fundamental trait beneath black bars implies that all non-binary gender identities are something to hide. That'll sting for any LGBTQ+ person seeking representation and equality, so between then and today's Black Ops - Cold War release, Treyarch clearly took the feedback seriously.
Even so, the change highlights the messy collision of identity politics and Call of Duty's rose-tinted treatment of US history. Is the addition of a non-binary gender option something to celebrate in a game where Ronald Reagan, whose administration referred to the AIDS epidemic as the "gay plague", begs you to do war crimes for him a win?
Not unequivocally, that's for sure. War isn't a progressive cause, and it certainly feels odd celebrating the possibility of playing a non-binary black ops soldier for a president that doesn't give a shit about you while indiscriminately firing rockets into Vietnamese farming villages—an early sequence in Cold War.
But by now, we're used to these kinds of anachronistic details in games. It's odd in the same way anyone looks to popular entertainment media as perfect mouthpieces for modern ideology.