I have been involved with a number of educational institutions that have created game design curriculum in recent years. I have seen a dependency on game design documents (GDD) as the hammer of game design eduction. As if having a GDD written, regardless of the quality of its content, has given a student what they need in their game design education.
These GDDs are often templates, taken from AAA console titles, that the student fill out with their game idea. These GDD templates are overloaded with details such as technical specs or marketing plans, things a first-time designer should not even think about. The game ideas within have not been scrutinized (by students or teachers) for validity or quality. Too often, these game ideas are simply rehashes of popular gaming franchises, such as Zelda or Metroid, modified with the student's own story and art.
Throwing students into writing GDDs is like asking an art student to create a painting when they have no understanding of the fundamentals of art such as color, shape, line, composition, space and value. Just like classical art, game design has rules and a language of its own.
While a I am very big proponent of the best game development education being to "just go make games," institutes of learning are one of the few places where students have the opportunity of a formal education. There is value of drilling fundamentals until it becomes second nature. A formally trained painter doesn't even think about the above rules anymore because they spent a thousand hours in life-drawing but if it came down to it they could tell you why a piece of art is "good." Game designers however, fall back on the term "fun" never fully understanding the rules of fun because they never learned the rules in the first place.
Students need to start from a basic structure and set of rules. There are some good systems and collections of rules available from which to pull. I fell students should produce short documents (3-5 pages) detailing their design mechanic and the dynamics their rules create. Short descriptions and sketches of their system would suffice. Once these designs are raked over the rules of design, they can move onto prototyping.
Obviously, gaming is popular. As a result people want to leverage the power of game design in whatever product they might have. You have a social site? Add some XP bars and it's a game-like social site! You got a sports news site? Add some missions and it's a game-like sports news site!
Game design is the cranberries of new products.
This can be a powerful tool and game-like elements are appearing more and more in our world. This was present in Jesse Schell's DICE talk, which at first was lauded as great and then quickly everyone turned against it as if it were game design blasphemy. A big part of the backlash against his talk was due to some popular talks that show evidence of rewards destroying the intrinsic value of creative or challenging activities.
In regards to gaming and game-like activities, there is a line to be drawn. That line is mastery.
To clarify if you are making a game or making a dreaded "game-like" activity, ask yourself this question.
"Can the moment-to-moment task a player is required to do be accomplished every time they attempt it?"
Can you hit a bulls-eye 100% of the time throwing a dart? Can you do a 1-shot sniper kill 100% of the time in Halo? These are tasks which can never be mastered. The "fun" is the attempt at mastery. A mastery which can never be attainted. When people talk about "The Beauty of Play" I think this is one very important aspect of that formula. Layering measurements on these activities (such as score or win percentage) is not a cheap game-like hack, it is a measurement of mastery.
Can the player click this button every 4 hours? This is not a task that requires mastery. The player can do it every time they attempt it. Laying measurements on this kind of activity (click this button 100 times to win) is from where the criticism of game-like executions stem.
What To Do
I am not calling anyone out and say this type of game is bad and this type is good. Some people are worried this design strategy may be damaging to the industry. I am not sure but my instinct is maybe its fine for some people and the industry is big enough to support multiple play types. However, unlike many fuzzy lines in game design, this one is relatively clear and should be recognized as such.