09/05/2013 10:37 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2013

Life Is Like Video Games: It's All About the Gold Coins

This is a post about false profits. No, I didn't spell that wrong -- although, oddly enough, there is some evidence that "profit" and "prophet" have related origins. And in some ways this post might be understood as being about the similarity between these two words. This is a post about understanding your goal, your objective or your purpose when playing the game.

So many of the games we play have gold coins, stars or other tokens that you can amass to boost your score. As you make contact with the objects, you hear a sound: ding, ding, ding, like coins dropping into a piggy bank. Points rack up. Collect enough and you get a free life, or another weapon, or you can open a secret level. In other words, this revenue does signify an advantage. This makes sense when we look at the word "profit."

The word "profit" is typically used in business to refer to the amount of money you make after subtracting expenses from revenue. But historically, the word also has to do with good circumstances. It describes when something is pleasing, positive or generally propitious. In this way, we use "profit" in a sense that has little to do with money but still has plenty to do with net proceeds. After all, profit describes what's after all your losses.

Consider the non-monetary losses. Consider all the negative parts of the game: the times you got smashed by the boss, the times you fell off the edge, the times you felt swamped by the amount of hurdles you needed to overcome.

When you look at all these gloomy parts of the game, you might be tempted to undertake a profit-loss or cost-benefit analysis. You might ask whether it's worth the trouble. Are the profits greater than the losses? Do the benefits outnumber the costs? Clearly, it's not so easy to determine.

Why? Because the challenge is what makes the game fun.

We enjoy playing because the challenge of overcoming difficulties is invigorating, even thrilling. Nobody wants to keep playing a game without risk. Without loss, there is no profit -- only revenue. Revenue is fine, but it's not the reason we play the game.

Revenue itself is neutral, neither positive nor negative: just boring. The possibility of excitement and gratification only exists in contrast to the murky losses that are crucial to making the game worthwhile.

In other words, what we're after -- the reason we play the game -- is always net proceeds. Proceeds proceed: they move us forward. They bring all our losses together so we can move onward as winners. Proceeds represent the count that remains after each failure. Without the failures, we don't proceed. We just stay still.

To proceed is another way of saying "to grow." After all, as organisms we are always growing. As players, the game always moves to the next level. But we arrive at each new stage armed with the losses that equip us to face the next challenge. Our toolkit is filled with the memories of the challenges and sufferings that have taught us the skills we need to carry on. Our losses, then, are not what hold us back: rather, they move us forward.

Our losses are prophetic. In other words, our profit (what we gain) is the benefit revealed by the struggles themselves.

So, do the gold coins matter? I don't know. But they make a pretty sound when you collect them.

This piece originally appeared in FREEPLAY: A Video Game Guide To Maximum Euphoric Bliss

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