How to Make the Video Game Industry Greener
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How to Make the Video Game Industry Greener
“How many more warnings do we need? The science is clear, it’s unequivocal.”
Author and researcher Ben Abraham is pissed. We’re speaking in April, a few days after the IPCC released its most contentious report yet. It stressed that in order to keep warming to the Paris Agreement’s goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius humanity needs to cut emissions by 43 percent by 2030. Talking to me over Zoom from his home in Sydney, Abraham wants more direct action—protests, absolutely—but also industry insiders to agitate for change, applying a different kind of grassroots pressure. “This is the only game in town now,” he says. “How do we prevent our planet from being boiled alive?”
For the video game industry—from indie developers, AAA studios, and hardware manufacturers to players themselves—Abraham’s new book, Digital Games After Climate Change, has answers. It offers a panoramic, systematized view of the entire industry, illuminating the ways in which so many people’s favorite hobby, often their escape from bad news, is, in fact, exacerbating the climate crisis. While writing the book’s introduction in 2019, Abraham thought of how he experienced this fact as a child while gaming in his parents’ loft during intense Australian heat. Without air-conditioning, the room was already stifling, but with numerous energy-intensive devices switched on—a console, CRT television, PC, and monitor—it became nigh-on unbearable. These video games, powered by electricity which was being generated from burning fossil fuels, existed in a feedback loop with the very atmosphere.
Gaming’s hunger for energy has only risen since the 1990s according to Evan Mills, coauthor of groundbreaking papers on the subject. Increased graphical intensity has seen electricity consumption rise, online multiplayer games require both players’ devices and energy-intensive data centers, and the increasingly tiny chips of modern consoles demand significantly more electricity to make by virtue of the hyper-controlled conditions in which they’re manufactured (which include air filtration and chemical treatments). Despite overall improvements in the energy efficiency of modern devices, Abraham writes that “gaming is still, by and large, a leisure activity—and presently it is a relatively carbon-intensive one,”
Abraham points out that the carbon commitments of the leading console manufacturers and producers of digital content, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, vary. Microsoft plans to be carbon negative by 2030—“ambitious but achievable,” says Abraham. Sony, meanwhile, having previously only made a vague commitment to a “zero environmental footprint” by 2050, recently announced a revised 2040 carbon-neutral target alongside efforts to use 100 percent renewable energy in its own operations by 2030. (The company didn’t respond to a request for comment when contacted.)
Nintendo, meanwhile, offers no promises on carbon or environmental neutrality. Somewhat remarkably, Abraham points to discrepancies in Nintendo’s reporting of its renewable energy usage which, according to its 2019 CSR report, sat at 98 percent. In the following year’s CSR report, what should have been the same 2019 figure had changed to just 4.2 percent. Abraham attributes the error to a mix-up of kWh and MWh, but he suggests that the company’s failure to report its own numbers accurately (a criticism he also levels at EA) is indicative of a failure to treat the issue seriously. (When contacted, Nintendo declined to comment on the discrepancy in reporting and instead pointed to its most recent CSR report which states that its renewable energy usage is now 44 percent.)
These assorted approaches, says the researcher, reflect an industry that “lacks leadership.” The closest the industry has to this is Playing for the Planet, a UN Environment program involving gaming companies such as Microsoft, Sony, and Ubisoft. Abraham says it’s vital that an organization like this exists to exert pressure and provide guidance, but that its impact is ultimately limited. “We still need regulatory intervention, a legal framework, and standards of energy efficiency,” he continues. As an example of this strategy, Abraham refers to recent legislation in California that puts a hard limit on power consumption of electronic devices to the extent that Dell no longer ships some of its energy-hungry Alienware gaming PCs to the state. The law, he says, is currently “pretty generous,” but there’s scope to intensify it in the future, likely as the climate crisis worsens.
One of the ways game makers may hope to foster change is through games themselves. Titles such as Beyond Blue, Eco, and Endling have foregrounded climate and environmental themes as a means of education and persuasion, building on the writer Jane McGonigal’s idea that games and their systems of play can engender changes in thinking, behavior, and even the world.
Abraham, however, remains unconvinced by games’ potential to influence people to the extent that the climate crisis requires. “It makes perfect sense. If you’re a game developer, you want to use your skills to help with the problem,” he says. “But when I look at the challenges of persuading people around an issue as contentious and ideological as the climate, it doesn’t seem to be a battle that can be won this way.”
There is, says Abraham, a more straightforward, material solution: the assessment, measuring, and wholesale cutting of emissions that stem from the development of video games.
One of the book’s key findings is that in 2020 the emissions of global game production sat between 3 million and 15 million tons of CO2-equivalent emissions, a figure Abraham calculated from data disclosed by leading companies in their corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports and national employment statistics on the games industry. Abraham admits this number isn’t perfect, not least because Tencent recently disclosed that its total greenhouse gas emissions alone was equivalent to 5.1 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2021, but he believes it’s a “good starting point.” If Abraham’s higher estimate is accurate, he says that would put the game development industry at roughly the same emissions intensity as Slovenia. Another way of putting this is that if the games industry were its own country, it would be approximately the 130th-most-intense emitter in the world that year—“an impressive if unwelcome feat,” Abraham deadpans.
Development emissions are the low-hanging fruit of decarbonization. The easiest change studios, either big or small, can make is by switching their electricity supply to 100 percent renewable or carbon-offset power. From there, Abraham suggests selling games digitally (which already accounts for 90 percent of new game releases), eliminating the hard-to-track emissions of manufacturing and goods transport. This should happen while amassing data on workplace energy consumption (with a view to reduction) and play-duration so that, where possible, companies can offset the carbon emissions of their player base. If these steps are followed, Abraham believes a “truly ecological game” is possible, one that acknowledges its place in the “material world” and takes steps to eliminate the harm it causes to “humans, plants, animals and the planet.”
For the vast majority of people in the industry who don’t have a direct say in how the businesses they’re employed by are run, Abraham urges collective action. He suggests forming “climate councils” (groups of colleagues who share environmental concerns) or raising the issue as part of a union (in regions where this is possible). “There are pathways to decarbonisation that can be done mostly by leadership—companies deciding to do the right thing and coming to the table,” he says, “and there are pathways where I think they’re going to resist those changes, or aren’t going to do them quickly enough, or renege on their commitments.”
Further down the line, organized employees may even be able to influence the kind of games that get made, including, perhaps, a move away from the energy-hogging, photorealistic graphics of so many modern titles. More modest changes such as locked frame rates and limited resolution would likely have an impact, too, but even these steps require disavowing or, at least, deprioritizing the graphical arms race that has so far driven the industry. Still, if both workers and consumers demand it, Abraham sees potential in the idea of marketing a green game—“a carbon-neutral game” he stresses. Publisher Kinda Brave is already utilizing this messaging, “carbon neutral from day one” according to its 2021 sustainability report.
Abraham took his research to GDC in March. While there, he had two kinds of conversations. The first was with those already working on gaming’s environmental impact such as Marina Psaros, Unity’s recently hired head of sustainability. The second was with developers interested in tackling their carbon footprint but who lack the knowledge to do so. “I always say start with your own emissions,” says Abraham. “Those are the ones you're responsible for, and they're the ones that no one else is going to reduce. Players might have solar panels, they might be buying renewable power—you don’t know.” Echoing climate writer Bill McKibben’s words, “winning slowly on climate is simply another way of losing,” Abraham emphasizes that these changes need to happen now: “This is what we need to work on in the immediate and short to mid term.”
The researcher is optimistic that the carbon challenges of development can be met, maybe even within the next 12 months “if we really get our act together.” However, finding solutions to the impact of hardware on the environment and climate could involve another “decade of work.” Consoles and the GPUs found inside of them are the products of complex supply chains, from the mining of rare earth minerals to the production of plastic and the shipping of such constituent parts around the globe, all of which involve big emissions. “[Hardware] is going to ask some really tough questions,” he says. “Can we afford a new console generation as a planet? Can we afford the industry as a species? If we can, what will these consoles look like? What are their energy profiles? Do they have disks? What is their production process?”
Cloud gaming of the kind accessible from services like Stadia, GeForce Now, and Amazon Luna could theoretically reduce the emissions tethered to hardware manufacturing. However, with the extra onus it puts on data centers, the energy intensity of the gaming industry could also be enlarged. According to a 2020 study by researchers at Lancaster University in England, if 30 percent of gamers switch to cloud gaming by 2030, the carbon emissions of the industry would rise by 29.9 percent. If the number is 90 percent this would cause a 112 percent increase.
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This speaks to Abraham’s central point that gaming needs to grapple with its carbon emissions at every level. As he writes in the book’s conclusion, doing so may require an entirely new approach to business. The gaming industry has long been “dominated by competition, platform wars, and fights over market and mind share—but perhaps it’s time for change.”
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