I have a confession to make. Having gone on record as saying that all game designers should study art, I've never actually taken a course on studying art until just now. (I did take a course as an undergrad where we created art using a computer, but I'd never heard of Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko or Robert Mapplethorpe until recently. This is the point at which any artists in the audience are rolling their eyes, wondering how I got as far as I did... and everyone else is wondering what the heck I'm talking about.)
Now that I'm studying contemporary art, I'm seeing a lot of similarities between art and game design. In particular, the art world has already encountered a number of issues in the past 100 years that video games are only beginning to struggle with today. I'm sure I'll post more about that in the future.
Today, though, I want to talk about one of the few big differences between art and games. It has to do with accessibility.
When most people today see a piece in a contemporary art museum or gallery, their first reaction is: "huh? I don't get it." The reason is that a lot of art isn't trying to talk directly to laypeople; it's artists talking to other artists. If you're an artist and you want to say something about the quality or nature or meaning of art, you don't give a lecture at an art convention, nor do you write an article for an online magazine about art; you create a piece of art that states your viewpoint. And other artists and critics who are already familiar with the current issues and discussions in the field (and who are already familiar with you and your background, culture, and viewpoints) will immediately see your piece and understand what you're saying. It's a very efficient way to communicate, actually. You just do your work and it explains itself.
Game designers don't have this luxury. For us, improving our understanding of our craft is a separate activity from actually making games. We talk about how to make better games through articles on Gamasutra and Game Developer, we give lectures at GDC, or we just talk to people in local IGDA meetings or the like. And then when we're done talking, we go off into our own respective worlds and try to apply what we've learned.
And maybe it's because of the complexity of video games, or maybe it's because a lot of video games hide their underlying mechanics from the player, or maybe it's just that a lot of designers aren't that good at game analysis, but we don't learn much from just playing each others' games... at least, not compared with how much artists get from looking at their contemporaries' works.
Here's an example: suppose you're making a CCG and you want to know the relationship between drawing an extra card and having the opponent discard a card (both of which give the player a one-card advantage). I can tell you from experience that the discard is usually more powerful (by a factor of about 1.5x), unless your game has really weird mechanics. But if you just looked at a variety of CCGs, this isn't something that you'd see plainly. Sometimes it's downright obscure, because cards often have different cost structures, or combine things like drawing and discarding with other effects (which makes for more interesting cards, but also obscures the basic costs and benefits and relative values of the simple things). So, unlike an artist, I can't just stare at the work of fellow game designers to learn how they do what they do. And unlike an artist, I can't just make a great game and have it speak for itself, to the point that other designers will just universally "get it" and be able to make their own games better.
But then, this limitation is also a strength of games when it comes to the mass market. If you haven't studied games, if you've never taken a game criticism or game analysis course, you can still sit down and play a game and have a good time with it (even if you don't understand why you enjoy it so much). But if you haven't studied art, and you go to an art museum, most of the stuff in there will likely go over your head. So, the communication between game designers may not be as efficient as that of painters or sculptors... but on the other hand, more people can appreciate and interact with a game than a painting or sculpture.