There's a lot of fretting over definitions going on in gaming blogs, Twitter and so on, lately. It all revolves around what games are, what indie means or what art is (goodness knows what an indie art game is supposed to be). Part of the problem is perhaps we're running before we can walk. We're trying to define words that are inherently tricky, so perhaps it would be a better warm-up to have a go at defining some words that are easy.
Let's try 'table.'
At dictionary.reference.com they have this to say:
1. an article of furniture consisting of a flat, slablike top supported on one or more legs or other supports.
That seems okay, actually. But just to make sure, let's see if we can think of any other articles of furniture consisting of a flat, slablike top supported on one or more legs or other supports. Wait a minute, what about a bench that doesn't have a back? The top of that could be slablike. And that's definitely not a table. Unless it's a workbench, I suppose. But that's different.
We're going to have to fix this definition of table. How about this?
An article of furniture consisting of a flat, slablike top supported on one or more legs or other supports, which isn't intended for sitting on.
Hmm. we usually don't define things by what they're not though. It's difficult to be exhaustive that way. For example, what about a bed? Nowhere does it say the flat, slablike top can't be a mattress. Let's try the other way around.
An article of furniture consisting of a flat, slablike top supported on one or more legs or other supports, intended for the purpose of sitting at or placing objects upon so that they can be used.
That seems a little better, but I keep on thinking of exceptions, still! A bird-table isn't flat. An operating table just about works for that definition, but it doesn't sit comfortably. And I can imagine a purely decorative table that isn't designed to be sat at, or have objects put on it, which means we can't define it purely by its function.
Oh dear. I'm having trouble, aren't I? And maybe that's the point.
As I go about my daily business, I am never worried about what tables are, it's never a source of confusion to me whether something is a table or not. Yet when I get right down to it, I'm completely hopeless at coming up with a precise definition of what one is.
That suggests to me that our understanding of words is not tied to our knowledge of how to define them, but instead to a much more intuitive process of pattern recognition. Coming up with definitions may be of academic interest, but has very little bearing on how words are understood. It's the conflation of definition and meaning that seems to lead to the endless and unresolvable debates and definition-policing that we have been seeing lately.
You might rightly point out that while there's no disagreement over what a table is, there's plenty of debate over art, indie and games. And that's true - at the moment there are different schools of thought on what counts as these things. That's because they're quite complex, abstract concepts unlike that of a table which is an easy enough pattern to recognise even if I can't put it exhaustively into words.
But I'm not saying that there should be no disagreement. I'm saying that attempts to come up with definitions do little to advance our understanding. Rather they hit on exactly the same nit-picking, point-missing problems that the above attempt to define 'table' does.
So let's put a stop to this nonsense that unless the definition for everything is clearly marked out, it won't be possible to have meaningful discussion about it, or everyone will be confused. If I can live with not being able to explain exactly what a table is, we can all definitely live with not being able to explain exactly what art, indie or games are.