The popularity of video games has been growing exponentially since their emergence in the 1980s, capturing more and more of the leisure hours of millions of gamers around the world. It has become the main component of the entertainment industry and the sixth industry worldwide. This growth has brought with it an ever-increasing environmental impact. Several studies point to the sector as one of the main contributors to global warming, with massive CO2 emissions derived from its high energy consumption.
In the USA, it is estimated that the energy consumed by video games represents 2.5% of the electric energy consumption of homes. This translates into some 24 million tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere, equivalent to the emissions of five million cars. How can a hobby apparently so innocuous, which is practiced from the living room of one’s home and with a small device, cause such an impact? One of the most recent studies identifies the two main factors responsible.
Mass production and high energy consumption
The mass production and distribution of the devices and the copies of games is the first of these factors. According to this study, the production of a physical copy of a game emits 20 times more CO2 than its digital download. For example, the production of copies of the popular game FIFA 20 during 2019 is estimated to have emitted more than half a million tons of CO2. Similarly, producing the 100 million PS4 consoles sold between 2013 and 2019 generated 9.8 million tons of CO2, more than what was emitted by countries like Costa Rica or Moldova.
The second factor is the high energy consumption of the consoles, a direct consequence of their power and the number of hours they are in operation. This factor is growing in importance since every season new, more powerful devices appear and with bigger GPUs (graphics processing units). In their wake, ever more frenetic games are generated that take place in more and more realistic and immersive scenarios, with such complex storylines that many hours are needed to reach the end. Likewise, the number of players and the average time spent in front of the screen is increasing. It is estimated that more than a third of the world’s population plays video games regularly, an average of more than seven hours a week.
However, studies also reflect that it is still possible to reduce and limit the carbon footprint if the measures proposed by experts are adopted. The first—and most important—step has already been taken: manufacturers have started to become aware of the problem and to act accordingly to limit the damage generated by their devices. One example is the recent initiative Playing for the Planet, which numerous companies have joined, including industry giants such as Sony, Microsoft and Google.
The first green shoots
As for the measures to be taken, there is a call for the maximum reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from the production of the devices and the physical copies of the games. In this vein, the first green shoots have already appeared; for example, Sega has begun to market its games in recyclable packaging. It has also been suggested that gaming-companies promote the access and acquisition of their games by digital download to minimise the production of physical copies. Another recommendation is to limit the electric power consumption of the devices by opting for more efficient games, in which their attraction does not lie in frenzied action in hyper-realistic scenarios, and which involve shorter games.
Recently, an ally has also appeared on the scene that promises to play a bigger and bigger role: cloud gaming, sometimes called gaming on demand, which stream from remote platform servers. This means that there is no need to download the game (a process that takes hours and consumes a lot of energy), nor very powerful devices since the graphics resolution and speed are controlled by the server.
Is cloud gaming the ultimate solution? It depends. The huge servers that host and manage the games require enormous amounts of energy to run at full capacity and continuously; the energy consumption of one of these servers is equivalent to 25,000 homes. The good news is that companies like Google, Amazon or Ubisoft guarantee that all their servers operate almost exclusively with renewable energy. The question is whether, as the supply and demand for this type of game increases, it will be possible to ensure that all servers continue to be powered largely by renewable energy.
In the meantime, perhaps the most immediate, simple and effective measure is to appeal to the individual responsibility of players by making them aware of how much and in what way their hobby contributes to the destruction of the planet and what they can do to avoid this without having to give up their leisure activity: opting for downloads and streaming platforms; limiting the hours of gameplay and choosing more efficient games. To encourage this, it has been suggested that manufacturers include in the specifications of their devices and games their energy consumption and their equivalent in CO2 emissions. Another idea is for games to include in their scoreboards a CO2 emissions counter always visible on the screen that coaxes the user to switch off the device for that day.