Here's another way of looking at what game design is, thanks to a recent conversation I had with Brenda.
Suppose I have this great idea for a painting, but I don't have the artistic or technical ability to pick up a brush. I could spend years learning anatomy, perspective drawing and the use of various tools, but that would take too long. I can picture this thing perfectly in my mind's eye, although once it's actually on physical canvas it might not look as cool as I'd originally thought. Or, maybe I have all the ability that I need, but I just don't want to put in the effort, because painting is hard work and takes a lot of time.
So, instead of doing it myself, I'll write down a detailed description of exactly what I want painted. I'll include all kinds of details, descriptions of characters and background scenery and color... although my vocabulary might be a little strange to a professional artist, if I never learned technical terms like "vanishing point". Then I'll give this description to a professional artist, and if my idea is cool enough maybe she'll make the painting for me.
Suppose I manage to find a willing artist. A first draft of the painting is made. I offer corrections, in some cases because the artist's work includes better ideas than what I'd originally envisioned, and in other cases because I was unclear in my "spec" and the artist misunderstood what I wanted. We go back and forth like this for awhile. Finally, the painting is done and we're both happy with it (or, I decide that it's "close enough" and I need the money). We sell the painting. I get all the credit, because it's my idea, and the painter was just my instrument. The painter gets more of the money from the sale, because of supply and demand (fewer people want to build someone else's idea, than to come up with the ideas themselves).
Of course, this would never actually happen for a purely creative work. And yet... that's more or less the relationship between game designers and game programmers. And part of me has to wonder how we game designers can possibly get away with it.