How to make the video game industry greener?

“How much more warnings do we need? The science is clear, it is unequivocal.”

Author and researcher Ben Abraham is angry. We’re speaking in April, a few days after the IPCC released its most controversial report yet. It stressed that to keep global warming in line with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degree Celsius target, humanity must cut emissions by 43 percent by 2030. Speaking to me via 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 right 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 is, Digital games after climate change, has answers. It provides a panoramic, systematized view of the entire industry, highlighting the ways in which so many people’s favorite hobby, often their escape from bad news, is actually exacerbating the climate crisis. While writing the introduction of the book in 2019, Abraham reflected on how he experienced this as a child while gaming in his parents’ loft during the intense Australian heat. Without air conditioning, the room was already stuffy, but with countless energy-intensive devices turned on—a console, CRT television, PC, and monitor—it became almost unbearable. These video games, powered by electricity generated by burning fossil fuels, existed in a feedback loop with the atmosphere itself.

A lack of leadership

Gaming’s hunger for energy is, according to Evan Mills, co-author of groundbreaking papers about the subject. Increased graphics intensity has increased electricity consumption, online multiplayer games require players’ devices as well as energy-intensive data centers, and the dwindling chips of modern consoles require significantly more electricity due to the hyper-controlled conditions in which they’re manufactured (including air filtration and chemical treatments). Despite general improvements in the energy efficiency of modern appliances, Abraham writes that “gaming is still generally a leisure activity – and currently a relatively carbon-intensive activity”.

Abraham points out that the carbon commitments of the leading console makers and digital content producers, Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, vary. Microsoft plans to be carbon negative by 2030 — “ambitious but achievable,” Abraham says. Meanwhile, Sony recently made only a vague commitment to have a “zero carbon footprint” by 2050 announced a revised carbon neutral target for 2040 alongside efforts to use 100 percent renewable energy in its own operations by 2030. (The company did not respond to a request for comment when contacted.)

Nintendo, meanwhile, does not promise carbon or environmental neutrality. Somewhat remarkably, Abraham points out: discrepancies in Nintendo’s reporting on renewable energy use, which was at 98 percent according to the 2019 CSR report. In the following year’s CSR report, what should have been the same in 2019 had changed to just 4.2 percent. Abraham attributes the error to a mixup of kWh and MWh, but he suggests the company is not reporting its own figures accurately (a criticism he also takes to EA) indicates not treating the problem seriously. (When contacted, Nintendo declined to comment on the discrepancy in the reporting, pointing instead to the most recent) CSR report stating that renewable energy use is now 44 percent.)

These different approaches, the researcher says, reflect an industry that is “missing leadership.” The industry comes closest to this: Playing for the planet, a UN environmental program involving gaming companies such as Microsoft, Sony and Ubisoft. Abraham says it’s essential that an organization like this exists to exert pressure and lead, but ultimately the impact is limited. “We still need regulatory intervention, a legal framework and energy efficiency standards,” he continues. As an example of this strategy, Abraham cites recent California legislation that puts a hard limit on the power consumption of electronic devices to the extent that Dell will no longer be shipped some of its power-hungry Alienware gaming PCs to the state. The law, he says, is “pretty generous” at the moment, but there’s room to intensify it in the future, likely as the climate crisis worsens.

What is an ecological video game?


Courtesy of Strange Loop Games

One of the ways game makers can hope to bring about change is through games themselves. Titles like Beyond Blueecoand end have brought climate and environmental issues to the fore as a tool for education and persuasion, building on author Jane McGonigal’s idea that games and their game systems can bring about changes in thinking, behavior, and even the world.

However, Abraham is still not convinced of the potential of games to influence people to the extent that the climate crisis demands. “It makes perfect sense. If you’re a game developer, you want to use your skills to solve the problem,” he says. “But when I look at the challenges of convincing people of a topic as controversial and ideological as climate, it doesn’t seem like a battle that can be won this way.”

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