One of my favorite films about video games is Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999). I know it’s already outdated, but I still think there is something truly insightful about that film. What I like about it is its complete embrace of the body. The video or virtual game in the film is played on a device that is partly organic and that looks something like a uterus. And for it to work, it has to plug into your spine with a cord that looks distinctly like an umbilical cord and whose insertion brings up clear sexual connotations. The importance of the body and all things organic does not end there. Most of the props have some sort of tactile organic role in the plot. I think what this film envisions is an embodied virtual subject.
It’s true that the idea of an avatar—used in video games, chat rooms, and so on—suggests something like an embodied virtual subject but it in fact lacks the attributes of the body. Cronenberg has always understood that the body is both known and unknown; it is both a comfort and a horror to the subject. It creates the contours of the subject and yet we are more than just our body. His films acknowledge this through their fascination with the tactile, porous, uncontrollable body.
In many ways, subjectivity itself can be defined as virtual. Freud’s point about the unconscious was that though our subjectivity is defined by it we don’t really have access to it. In this way, we are desperately trying to control what we can’t ever encounter. Maybe this is what eXistenZ gets right: that the organic is both the most pleasurable and the most horrible aspect of subjectivity. The game itself in eXistenZ is an embodied virtual subject whose encounters with the unconscious are always in the form of the oozing unpredictable expansions and limitations of the body. Perhaps what video games today miss—in trying so desperately to create subjectivity through the first person point-of-view—is a broader more embodied way of thinking of subjectivity, a subjectivity that can’t be so readily defined or so easily satisfied.