Being a good game designer involves having a reasonable familiarity with existing games. Every kind of artist learns by studying the works of others, after all. It’s important to recognize, however, that playing other designers’ games is not the same as doing design work. To make real progress, design time needs to be spent hammering away at one’s own games.
One of the perils of game design, I’ve found, is that research can be an awful lot of fun. Part of how I learn about fighting games is by playing them–and I really like fighting games. So too for wargames, worker-placement games, co-ops, semi co-ops, deckbuilders, and on and on. Learning is fun, because “have fun with this” is the default way to interact with the medium.
So far, so good. The danger is that it can feel natural to flip the equation around, turning “learning is fun” into “fun is learning.” From the latter statement, it’s easy to arrive at “having fun is also doing work.”
Unfortunately, that last position is wrong. Playing other people’s games might help one refine ideas for one’s own games, or be a source of inspiration, or demonstrate a useful technique. It will never, however, bring one’s own games into actual physical existence. It will never playtest them or write their rulebooks or do any of the other things that need doing to make one’s own games happen. Having fun isn’t doing work; it’s taking one away from the tough stuff.
This doesn’t mean that a designer should only work, leaving no time for play. Experiencing other designers’ games can be very valuable. Again, no artist would be expected to practice in a vacuum, ignoring the masterworks of his or her field.
What it does mean is that play time and work-on-own-designs time need to be kept separate. Don’t set aside two hours to work on a project, and then spend them playing Flower “to learn about non-conflictual games.” Play Flower during free time, and put those two hours into creating the next generation of non-conflictual gaming.
It’s often said that ideas aren’t worth much in game design, because lots of people have them; what’s rare and valuable is the follow-through to make an idea into a publishable game. Getting into a “playing = working” mindset is an easy way to end up on the wrong side of the ideas/follow-through divide. Play, definitely play–take it from a lawyer, making some time for not-work is a good idea–but recognize that playing doesn’t move one’s own designs forward, and keep the time for that latter goal sacrosanct.