Having established that the “indie” has always been there, Foddy suggested that what is truly unique to the now isn’t the “newness” of indie games at all (which is the mythology of a few elite indie devs). Rather, it is the baffling diversity of indie games, the reality that indie creation is more mechanically, representationally, and developmentally expansive than in any prior moment in video game history. For Foddy, the dream of a unified scene is an elitist one; what McMillan framed as segregation, Foddy spun as proliferation. As Foddy told it, video games are always already indie, and a word shouldn't be getting in the way of celebrating everything the indie movement has to offer.
Foddy's larger cultural and inspirational goals are well taken. In gesturing for a historically-based notion of inclusivity, Foddy successfully countered the idea that the indie is a radical break in how we produce and experience games. By that logic, we should be much more open and accommodating of what McMillan experiences as “segregation.”
But the successes of Foddy's talk came at the cost of a different kind of historical “accuracy”—our capacity to make conceptual and historically meaningful distinctions between two separate but often conflated cultural phenomena within game production: the independent and the indie.
I borrow this handy distinction from scholars Maria B. Garda and Pawel Grabarczyk. In Garda and Grabarczyk's classification, independent may apply to work that is “financially” independent (non-AAA), or stylistically independent (non-mainstream). Indie, however, is a movement that emerged at the turn of the 21st century. Additionally, indie is also sometimes a genre or marketing tag tied to this movement. In the history Foddy wove, there was no distinction between these two very different categories. When Foddy cited the “indieness” of Commander Keen or Lemmings or the Scandinavian demoscene, he was often referring to their “independent” status.
While my point may seem like a ponderous subtlety, conflating these ideas actually produces different kinds of histories—which in turn, affects how we experience our emotional relationship to the past. To follow Foddy's argument, McMillan's lack of historical awareness in part produced his sense of entitlement and authority. Part of Foddy's work was to challenge the validity of that sensibility by offering a history-check of indie hubris. As someone interested in how we create safer spaces and more viable environments for all the bodies and persons who wish to participate in video game culture, I'm in sync with Foddy's intentions.
But as a historian, I am equally suspect of reading the past in the terms of the present—what we call historical anachronism. While I'd be foolish to think that the distinction between “independent” and “indie” wasn't implicit for Foddy, I've run into more than one person who thought the takeaway was found in the historical merit of a “true” history of indie development.
What I'd like to see, as someone deeply engaged by the pasts always playing out in our present, is a more exacting assessment of the past's historical character. There are historical specifics that unite the examples Foddy brought before us to the conditions of the present, but they are not the one's he mentioned. If we want powerful and precise lessons from game history, we might think of them this way:
- Game history proves that there have always been game programs that existed outside a market of mass production and profit-dense capitalist exchange.
- Game history indicates that non-market production is often stimulated by the deep pleasure experienced in the act of pressuring the boundaries of both existing technology and one's own creative and technological skills. This is a pleasure intrinsic to the creation itself, not dependent on capital gain (fiscal, cultural or otherwise).
But this is not the same as saying video games have always been indie. The circumstances by which a game emerges outside of mass production or certain forms of capitalist exchange are unique to the economic and industrial character of its time. No matter how much value we take in seeing a reflection of our own practices in the past, and how much we might learn through these comparisons I always want to insist: history is not there for us. When we believe it is, we commit the McMillan fallacy—whether that's investing faith in the newness of the indie, or validating our work by tying it to a (politically and representationally fraught) past.
And what of indie “as a movement”? As a subculture, reckoning with the gap between “the indie” and “the independent” can help those invested in the movement understand why there is so much strife around the term “indie” in the present: because we're all actually talking about different things. If there is anything remarkable about Indiecade, it is that it so clearly doesn't know where it is going, and thus, its net can still afford to be wide. What to make of a conference where witch poet gamecrafter Merritt Kopas performs Tarot, and Caspar Gray lectures on pitching games to the AAAs? We should think about Foddy's argument in the reverse: “indie” is the present-day coin of the realm, describing game production that meets the qualifications of the two historical conditions I outlined above.
Indie isn't something someone did or made or invented. “Indie” is a participant response, a mode of community organization and self-recognition, rather than a transhistorical schematic for understanding the history of games. “Indie” is a referent for a curious balancing act between art and business, commerce and creativity, one made possible by very specific technological affordances, the economic operations of late capitalism, varied aesthetic imperatives about the contours of “personal expression,” a kind of neoliberal hucksterism around the power of individual creativity, and the endlessly scalable conditions which drive our creative desires.
Indie is indie because it is now, because it is meaningful in the present, because through some strange confluence of economic, technological and cultural conditions, people became invested in identifying themselves in this way—this is what is unique to indie games today, a historically-specific truth not shared with any past example of marginal game production.
I'd like to thank Colin Snyder, Ida C. Benedetto and Bennett Foddy for being my mental scratchpad as I worked through these ideas.