The Comforts of Home: Defending Applebee’s in ‘Modern Warfare 2’

While a lot has been said about the infamous “No Russian” chapter of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (indeed, I had my say shortly after the game released in 2009), perhaps less has been written about some of the other sequences in the game, like the chapters that concern defending the homefront.

In large part, I am thinking of the “Wolverines” chapter but also a few of the others that concern defending suburbia from the Russian horde. What made me think of these chapters again was watching the E3 Microsoft media briefing, which featured some live gameplay of Modern Warfare 3. A brief moment in the playthrough featured the player surfacing off the coast of what I assume to be the United States and sighting the ruined skyline of a major U.S. city (New York, I think?).

It seems that the Modern Warfare series is interested in some way in “personalizing” the experience of combat for the player by placing him in environments that feel like home, both unsettling the player but also evoking a strong emotional reaction as a result of the realization that what he is doing is defending a space that, for most middle class Americans, feels normally pretty secure.

Doing so, of course, requires a familiarity with the space or imagery being represented. In Modern Warfare this is rather effectively created in a later chapter in which the player emerges from a bunker to see a battle damaged Washington Monument. As a familiar emblem of the U.S. government, the player seems intended to feel a bit heart sick at seeing this icon in its wounded state. Pride in America and what it stands for should be motivation enough to get back on the battlefield and stick it to whomever brought about the defacing of a symbol of who we are and what America is.

However, while I did feel some of what I describe above when I encountered this imagery, I have to say that more effective still was the imagery from the “Wolverines” chapter. The obvious allusion to Red Dawn and that Cold War “classic”’s parallel to the circumstances of the plot of Modern Warfare 2 aside, the thing that is most effective about these earlier chapters is the even greater familiarity to the average American of the spaces occupied in this and following chapters. Popping smoke in the suburbs is a radically alien experience in a very familiar setting for much of my American cohort, I would imagine.

Shortly into “Wolverines,” the player takes up a position on the roof of an eatery called (I believe) Nate’s Restaurant. While the player can simply circle the building and climb to its rooftop to engage the enemy, I recall taking a walk through the dining room and getting the lay of the land first. When I entered and had a moment or two to survey this future battleground, I turned to my wife and said, “I’m in Applebee’s.” And indeed, Nate’s does resemble the cookie cutter design of the interior of an Applebee’s or a Bennigan’s or a T.G.I.Fridays or any number of franchise restaurants catering to a white, middle class, suburban American appetite.

Now the thing about Applebee’s is that it is a ubiquitous architecture, menu, and overall experience, but if you’re American, you already know that. I grew up in the suburbs of a major metropolitan American city. 15 years later, I have found myself living in a small midwestern town (pop. 30,000 give or take). The two places have very little in common. They have a very different culture, attitude, and buzz about them. Most places are closed by 9 P.M. Here, there is generally little to no traffic, anywhere I go pretty much takes under 10 minutes, on Sundays many businesses are locking up at 6 P.M. (if they open at all), people don’t lock up at night, no one owns a privacy fence, etc., etc. But they both have an Applebee’s, and I’ve eaten there in both locations. It was a pretty damned similar experience.

The differences in geography in the United States and the differences in regional cultures that are produced by large spaces between citizens have been overcome in the nation’s last century or so by mass media, mass production, and mass marketing. There is a reason why most any white, middle class American of the X Generation (no matter where they grew up) can pretty much have a rather engaged discussion about nearly any episode of Scooby Doo or can wax rhapsodic about the episode of Family Ties when Alex was heart broken over Ellen. With only three networks on television growing up, it was media spectacle that drew divergent regions of the United States together. After the fracturing of televised media with the advent of cable television, the VCR and then the DVD player, and the internet itself, such media-directed homogeneity seems to no longer exist among Americans. So, thank God for big-box stores.

Nearly anywhere I travel that is just off the interstate, it is these little spaces of “American-ness,” the big-box store and their inevitable satellites, Barnes & Noble, Pier 1, Applebee’s, etc. that remind me that I am not in a foreign land. They remind me that I am somewhere civilized and safe — that I’m home — which is what is so devestating about seeing a “Nate’s” under siege in Modern Warfare 2. If the Olive Garden isn’t safe, then, for God’s sake, what is?

Call of Duty‘s marketing has spoken to this degree of personalization and ubiquity in the more recent past in ads like“There’s a Soldier in All of Us,” which arrived around the time of Black Ops release. Here office drones, construction workers, and even the doughnut guy (?) can become heroic soldiers, champions of the American way of life:

In Modern Warfare 2, though, the notion that a space that many Toms, Dicks, and Harrys might recognize as an oasis of comfort and calm after a long work week can be invaded is a horrific one and not to be allowed to let stand. Even moreso than the Washington monument or the New York skyline, suburban comforts are the America that the office drone, the construction worker, and the doughnut guy can identify directly with and recognize as a space that you occupy when you are doing okay. If I can not defend my own and my wife and kids’ right to a $10.95 steak dinner, then what does America have left to offer me?


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