How the game industry is fighting its carbon footprint

For decades now, we have been witnessing the effects of climate change in real time. According to NASA, the planet’s average surface temperature has risen around 2.12 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century. The ocean has shown warming of over 0.6 degrees Fahrenheit since 1969. The ice sheets have lost an average of 279 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2019. The global sea level has risen about eight inches in the last century.

These effects are only a small piece of the byproduct of humanity’s rapid technological and industrial development. Our constant push for advancement contributes to carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, resulting in there being more CO2 in our atmosphere than at any other time in human history. In an ominous Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 2021, the United Nations reported, “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.” And a big part of that influence comes from our entertainment production, which includes nearly all aspects of the game industry, thanks to its reliance on computing, servers, manufacturing, distribution, and more.

Gaming serves as an escape from the horrors of real life, but it’s also one of the largest contributors to one of our biggest fears. That doesn’t mean that the industry isn’t working to slow its impact on climate change, though. In fact, many companies are pushing to lessen their carbon footprints.

How games have contributed to climate change

In 2020, Sony energy policy analyst Joshua Aslan conducted a study on PlayStation 4’s European install base. In the study, Aslan factored in every PS4 that had been sold locally and estimated the energy usage. His study concluded that “if high estimates for console usage (4.4 hours per day) are representative of actual usage, then lifetime electricity use could be as high as 27 terawatt-hours for all PS4 units in Europe.” Aslan noted that this was approximately equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of Hungary circa 2018. It also surpassed the terawatt-hours used by Ecuador in 2016.

Imagine that multiplied globally across multiple platforms, including energy-demanding PCs, which energy experts Nathaniel and Evan Mills estimate to consume approximately 1,400 kilowatt-hours per PC yearly. In their article “Taming the energy use of gaming computers” they state, “The kilowatt-hours used by gaming PCs yearly is equivalent to the energy use of ten game consoles, six standard PCs, or three refrigerators.”

“So that gives you a bit of a sense of the scope of everything,” says climate and sustainability researcher Ben Abraham.

Abraham is working on a book titled Digital Games After Climate Change, in which he is sharing his research on what climate change means for the games industry.

“I did a survey at the start of 2020 to ask game developers things like, ‘How do you feel about the climate crisis? Are you concerned about it?’ All sorts of things like that,” Abraham says. “The big number that I came up with, gathered from energy usage figures from corporate sustainability and corporate social responsibility reports — plus the survey included things like carbon emissions and energy intensity — was 1 to 5 tons of CO2 per employee per year.” The greenhouse gasses released in these emissions are what damage the atmosphere and cause global warming. To visualize, Building Energy, a group that tasks itself with decreasing building energy use to combat climate change, states, “A ton of CO2 would fill a modest one story ranch house with a footprint of 1250 sq feet and an average height of 13 feet.” The more of this thermal energy used, the more damage is done to the atmospheric bubble, which means a warmer planet and more destroyed environments.

Abraham found that every company, studio, and developer he gathered data on — including Ubisoft, Nintendo, and Microsoft — were all somewhere in the range of generating 1 to 5 tons of CO2 per employee per year. He says that when you multiply that by the number of game developers there are in the world, both in offices and working from home whether with a company or independently (which he estimates at around 500,000 to four million at the moment), you end up with somewhere between three million and 15 million tons of CO2 per year attributable to the process of making the games. And this number is just coming from the carbon emissions of the energy used in gaming development offices, whether that energy be attributed to computer usage, running servers, or even just keeping the lights on — not playing them, not getting them into the hands of players, not thinking about the waste like discs going into landfills, and not the servers being played on.

“That’s a huge figure,” Abraham says. “It puts the game development industry at around the same emissions intensity as the total 2018 emissions for the European country of Slovenia, with a population of about 2 million people. It also means that the global film industry emissions are at the low end of our possible range of emissions from game production.” The Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Group shared an infographic showing the benefits of preventing one million tons of CO2 emissions. The graph shows just how wide the scope of the problem is at just the one million mark. When multiplied with Abraham’s three to 15 million calculation, it’s easy to see why so many are looking to resolve the issue fast.

Consoles themselves generate another significant part of the problem. In his book, Abraham performs tests on the PlayStation 4’s central processing unit. He does mass spectrometry, which is a way to measure the mass-to-charge ratio of one or more molecules present in a sample, on the unit, and reveals all of the atomic components that were inside it. One of the elements that he finds is titanium, which has to be dug out of the ground, refined, and then shipped around the world and manufactured into this console, which presents the problem of huge emissions intensity according to Abraham.

“And all these things are inside our gaming devices,” Abraham says. “So that’s a really tough challenge. And I think we’re decades and decades away from being able to do that sustainably.”

There is also the issue of the cycle of upgrade culture tied to technology. Every new generation of consoles is embedded with tons of CO2. This happens even more frequently with phones and their various upgrade models released every few seasons. Just this year alone we’ve seen the release of multiple versions of the iPhone 13, Google Pixel 6, Samsung Galaxy, and more. That’s not even looking at the continued production of previous iterations of these devices. All of these devices mean more CO2 is being released not only through their production, but through our constant usage. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, as of 2020 around 21% of the U.S. is powered by renewable energy. This means the rest of the nation, whether it’s through charging a phone or playing a gaming console, is powered by an energy grid running on fossil fuels that continuously release CO2 emissions.

All the energy and resulting CO2 emissions don’t just power the industry and go away. It damages the atmosphere which results in climate damage, and its need of fossil fuel power adds even more environmental impact. “Unearthing, processing, and moving underground oil, gas, and coal deposits take an enormous toll on our landscapes and ecosystems,” says the National Resources Defense Council. “The fossil fuel industry leases vast stretches of land for infrastructure such as wells, pipelines, access roads, as well as facilities for processing, waste storage, and waste disposal. In the case of strip mining, entire swaths of terrain are scraped and blasted away to expose underground coal or oil. Even after operations cease, the nutrient-leached land will never return to what it once was.” This leads to land turned into empty waste and left desolate with no use to humans or the wildlife that once roamed it.

How game developers can reduce their impact

There is a lot that can be done to lessen the footprint of the game industry. While some say games companies should try persuading players to turn an eye to the climate crisis, Abraham believes that isn’t the best use of our time and effort right now.

“That sort of stuff might be something we could do down the track,” he says. “But we need to be more focused on immediate reductions. We need to do things immediately about our carbon emissions. One of the best ways for game developers to do that is actually to focus in their workplace and ask themselves, ‘What are we emitting? How much energy are we using? Are we buying renewable energy? Can we do that?’”

In a conversation about Wargaming Sydney’s (the company behind World of Tanks) switch to renewable energy with the company’s chief technology officer, Simon Hayes, Abraham found that a switch to recyclable power was very easy.

“They just went out and found a different power provider that was going to offset all of the 100% green or offset energy. They also got a better deal on their power than what they were paying before, so it actually saved them money. They’ve got a few other things that they’re doing as well in their office. Like offering to pay for employee usage of public transportation and planning to produce a system to document all their international travel.”

At the higher end of the industry, bigger companies like Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, and EA, are also using a fair bit of renewable energy now.

“You can dig into the annual corporate social responsibility reports and see Nintendo is using 98% renewable power already,” Abraham says.

Other companies that we contacted also sent documentation showing that there is work currently being done to push for carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative footprints in the game industry.

When contacted for this story, EA shared its push to publicize its sustainable operations plan. In its 2020 impact report (In which Abraham alerted me that EA understated its energy consumption as 93 MWh or 9,300 kWh most likely due to an error. A report that was corrected in a new report with a much more believable figure of 95,000,000 kWh.), EA says it is looking to reduce its carbon footprint, make more environmentally conscious office decisions, and more closely manage energy and water usage. The report also shows the company is pushing for digital downloads over physical game purchases. In 2020, EA estimated that 49% of its games were downloaded digitally, up from just 33 percent in fiscal year 2017.

Though, as Abraham says in a comment on EA’s latest impact report, this is hardly something that EA needed to actually do anything to encourage. The company continued on its goal of sustainable operation and managing its environmental impact in 2021, as seen in its most recent impact report. Here the company boasts using a wide variety of sustainable energy strategies from simply using LED lighting and room sensors to reduce energy use and purchasing eco-friendly supplies, to partnering with cloud providers that have robust strategies for energy efficiency resulting in fewer data centers.

EA says its efforts have resulted in:

  • 800 kWh annual reduction from several LED projects
  • 820,000 kWh annual reduction from LED light retrofits, voltage harmonizer, and automated light sweeps
  • 30,906 pounds of waste diverted from landfill to recycling and compost
  • 5 million gallons of recycled water used annually for landscaping

“Interestingly the report still doesn’t actually put a figure on their carbon emissions anywhere that I could find,” Abraham says. “Which is disappointing because it means we have to estimate from their energy consumed, which will always be less accurate than if they just told us themselves based on what their energy mix of renewables vs fossil fuel generated power is and the emissions factors. Not very ambitious, and disappointing to have to do our own estimates of CO2 emissions based on energy consumption figures.”

Google also provided some information to show its progress on sustainability which Abraham had nothing but praise for, saying “Google have put a fair lot of work into their carbon footprint. I had a look at their data center stuff and it all seems pretty good. I thought that Microsoft was the biggest corporate purchaser of renewable power in the U.S., but perhaps they’ve recently been overtaken!”

A conversation with Google about its sustainability practices revealed that:

Finally, Xbox offered the following statement:

“Microsoft is committed to sustainability and, as we look at the new generation of gaming with Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S, we’re continuing to explore how we can reduce our environmental impact across the product life cycle, from conceptualization, design, production, and packaging, to what happens once our consoles are in the hands of consumers and at their end-of-life. We’ll have more to share on Xbox sustainability efforts in the future.”

Xbox sent what its achieved in its race to be the leading name in gaming’s carbon battle:

  • “We recently incorporated post-consumer recycled (PCR) resins for the first time in any Xbox hardware for our Electric Volt and Daystrike Camo Special Edition controllers. Both controllers contain a portion of resins made from recycled materials like automotive headlight covers, plastic water jugs, and CDs.”
  • “In addition, most of the color options for our controllers in the Xbox Design Lab are made with 30% PCR materials by weight.”
  • “Earlier this year, the Xbox team also rolled out a new feature that reduces power from 15W to less than 2W when the device is in energy-saving mode.”

One of the company’s most ambitious goals is to become completely carbon-negative by the year 2030.

“That’s a more ambitious target than most,” Abraham says. “It’s way more ambitious than most countries, which are just aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050.”

Is it too late to change?

Climate change has been a known threat since the ‘70s, and Abraham believes the work should have started as soon as it was learned of and continued throughout his entire lifetime. “The signs are just so fucking obvious now people can’t ignore it anymore,” he says. There’s so much that can and needs to be done that even today would be a great starting point, but that doesn’t make it any less of a challenge.

“We need to be cutting emissions everywhere and anywhere we can. That’s partly why I focus on the development side of things rather than other areas. Changing over your power company to 100% renewable, that’s easy,” Abraham says.” You can do that in a couple of days and then you’re already making a huge difference. Whereas other parts of the games industry are much much harder. Producing a brand new console without having any sort of embedded carbon emissions in it is going to be a really fucking hard challenge.”

While it seems like the push for change has come late, it’s still never too late to start chasing a negative carbon footprint. But it will take a lot of work from all parties, from producers to consumers and suppliers, to face this challenge head-on.