Insomnia | Commentary

Why I Hate Narrow-minded Experts

By Bradford / March 2, 2009

Because people that don't exist are so aggravating, you know?

I've been thinking about this since the recent, and as of now removed, rllmuk thread on game reviews (see here for more details), where it was repeatedly argued that it is a bad thing when experts review games due to various asinine reasons such as said experts being too narrow-minded, unable to see past "genre conventions", unable to appreciate novelty, and in all cases wholly unable to say anything useful to a non-expert, among other reasons.

Why is it so hard to grasp that the very nature of expertise entirely precludes such shortcomings? The answer seems to be that such people don't grasp what it means to be an expert in the first place. I'll grant at the outset that the word 'expert' is not used consistently, and requires some definition. There are two overlapping categories of people the term expert is used to describe (in the style of a Venn diagram). The first category consists of those who have training, certification and/or experience in a subject such that it appears sufficient to themselves or to others for them to warrant the title of 'expert'. The other category is actual experts, who may not necessarily have official training or certification, but who certainly have experience, as well as the rest of the qualities that actually make someone an expert.

Principal among those qualities is that which precludes the narrow-mindedness. A true expert is capable of having a holistic view of the subject. This is what differentiates medical professionals, for example. Nurses are specifically trained to identify, report, and recommend treatment for specific isolated symptoms; doctors and other higher level medical professionals are trained to view all of the symptoms as part of a whole condition, to see how chemical levels in one place relate to organ issues in a completely different place, or whatever, etc., and react appropriately to treat the entire condition.

Thus, an expert must possess an esoteric body of knowledge, and be able to see the connections between seemingly separate ideas (this is an oversimplification -- I'm leaving out earlier levels of learning such as the progression from smaller ideas to larger concepts within the subject). Someone who has these qualities is an expert on that subject, and their thoughts (variations in ability to express oneself aside) are inherently more valuable to everyone than those of a non-expert. From where comes this ridiculous belief that the thoughts of an expert would be indecipherable or not useful to a non-expert? The nature of expertise must include expertise in the fundamentals of a subject. A person who possesses intimate understanding of a subject's fundamentals and how they relate to the advanced material must have a more useful perspective of the fundamentals than a person with lesser understanding. If I were an expert in boxing, and you were new to the sport, would it not be more valuable to learn to jab from me than from another amateur? Would my expert insights on the applications, training methodology, and other details not be useful to you? Is my point of view too elitist for you? Of course not -- ideally you would always want to learn only from the best.

The average game reviewer is a hobbyist at best, and has a ton of experience playing games, for sure, but is nowhere close to an expert until they have successfully applied their mind to understanding the bigger picture (even within a single genre of game).

I can't even conceive of a person who is an expert on, say, 2D horizontal shmups, for example, who understands detailed points both large and small about how the elements of such a game (e.g., design of levels, enemies, controls, power-ups, etc.) all interrelate, and can make complex judgments about the results of said relationships, but at the same time would not be able to understand the same relationships in a game like Starfox, simply because it stepped outside the genre by adopting a three-dimensional, behind-the-ship perspective.

The only thing here that is narrow-minded is the logically inconsistent view that experts are somehow like idiot-savants, genius-level minds able to understand the intricacies of subtle interactions within complex weather systems and chaos theory-based modelling, but totally unable to engage in a simple and superficial conversation about the weather.