We Don’t Need a Better Definition of Indie
I’ve read a lot of articles and heard even more discussions that try to pin down what it is to be indie. The arguments usually go something along the lines of this:
- You might think indie is defined as X. But if we define it as X, that’s a problem because look at all these exceptions.
- Repeat for definitions Y, Z as necessary.
- Here’s what I think indie games all have in common, so that’s my definition.
And then people will respond agreeing or thinking of exceptions to that, but no new consensus will be reached. I’ve always thought of these conversations as somewhat pointless but I’ve never quite realised why until I thought of something that always used to bother me in philosophy classes. Now I finally feel ready to put across my view.
The problem with arguing for strict definitions is that it has very little to do with the way we actually use language. You can get into knots defining even the simplest things if you insist on strict, watertight definitions. Take the word “Table.”
“Well, it’s an object used for putting things on.”
“What about a shelf?”
“Well, okay, it’s an object used for putting stuff on that has one main flat surface.”
“What about a decorative table that you’re not supposed to put anything on?”
“Well …uh… then it’s just an object that has one main flat surface?”
“What, like a piece of paper?”
“…that you can sit at?”
“Unlike one of those little side tables?”
“Stop it! Everyone understands what a table is!”
And that is precisely the point. When words come into usage, no comittee decides on exactly how it is to be used, and the definition might be a little fuzzy around the edges or hard to pin down when you really think about it. It might even change over time. But that doesn’t mean that nobody is sure what I’m talking about when I tell them to put something on the table.
So what’s the obsession with getting a good, solid definition of indie, one that won’t let ‘impostors’ in? Why are we worried that if one of our definitions technically allows a counterintuitive example in that the word is no longer meaningful? I say we should cut that out.
For example, I quite like the most basic definition of indie: a game that is made without big publisher involvement. But people will object to it because it’ll allow in, say, Valve or it’ll leave out games which seem like indie games but are picked up by publishers during development. I say that doesn’t matter.
Imagine the definition like bait which I’m using to try and catch every indie fish. This bait will get the vast majority of those things I intuitively want to call indie fish to bite. They’ll make up the bulk of my haul. In addition, I’ll probably pick up a few unexpected things that drifted onto the hook, and some things might not bite.
All of that is okay – this fishing business is inexact. The main thing was that most of the things I wanted to catch with that bait, I did. And I didn’t have to spend twenty minutes figuring out and then trying to explain to the guy in the fishing shop exactly what I wanted. If I had done, I might indeed have ended up with bait that didn’t catch some of the weird fish and caught some fish my less precise bait had missed.
But so what? Either way people will still look in my big bucket of fish at the end of the day and say ‘Hoo boy, that’s a mighty fine haul of indie fish you got yourself, there.’ Because we both loosely understand what an indie fish is when we see it, even if we can’t say exactly what one is in words, because that’s how we negotiate language in every day life.
If I’m trying to define to someone, briefly, what an indie is, ‘games that are made without publisher involvement’ is perfectly serviceable. If they’d like me to elaborate, I can then start adding in some caveats, talk about how the teams tend to be small and the costs low, how they often work in genres outside of the mainstream and so on. But that’s not a definition, it’s an explanation, and as such it deserves a bit more space than it would take to cram it into a sentence or two.