The video game industry is one of the biggest industries in the world.
While video games are a popular form of entertainment, they rely solely on electronics, consuming great amounts of energy. So, are they sustainable?
To make them more sustainable, video game companies need to address their manufacturing and recycling processes and switch to renewable energy.
Video games aren’t all bad though – they have great potential as educational tools, especially in simulating and exploring environmental problems.
Are video games sustainable?
Ultimately, video games are not sustainable, though many companies in the gaming industry are committed to making important changes to reduce their environmental impact.
A study into the most eco-friendly games console found that physical copies of games “emit more than 23 times the CO2 of [downloaded games]”. The longer you play a game, the more electricity it uses and carbon dioxide is emitted.
Downloaded games still have an impact, but it’s estimated that by swapping to digital downloads, gamers can cut their carbon footprint by 95.6%.
This isn’t a perfect solution, however, since patches and DLC increase the amount of energy further. MMOs or regularly updated games will typically drain energy more quickly, requiring energy-efficient computers to reduce their environmental impact.
Cloud gaming has a further environmental impact as they require access to data centers filled with servers. These servers store a lot of data and are required to be online 24/7 to allow access.
On average, Nintendo consoles are the most environmentally friendly as they average 0.008kg emissions per hour, compared to Xbox consoles averaging 0.031kg per hour.
Energy efficiency is also important, as many AAA games (which typically have the bigger budgets for development and marketing, and sell more) have longer playtimes. The longer a game is played, the more energy is used.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s average completion time of 40 hours and 24 minutes means that it emits over 1.36kg of CO2 emissions alone on a PS4.
Ways that video games impact the environment
Playing video games consumes electricity, and is expected to use up to $5 billion per year of energy in the United States alone.
By measuring the energy consumption of 26 gaming systems, this study found that around 2.4% of residential electricity nationally is used up, and has enough carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to over 5 million cars per year.
While newer gaming systems and computers have better energy efficiency, the waste of old games and systems presents its own impact.
Cloud gaming uses data centers to store data, which gaming devices connect to through the Internet.
While the servers process data, the processing work is reduced on your device, reducing some of the energy load locally. If the data center isn’t powered with green energy, the emissions released can increase further.
Because cloud gaming relies on processing data and sending data to the device, it can actually increase the amount of energy consumption and emissions as it uses both data center capacity and network capacity.
That isn’t to say that we should stick to physical copies of games.
While downloadable content and cloud gaming have their benefits, sometimes physical copies can help the environment.
When a gaming console is discontinued, it can still be repaired by hand or local stores, enabling you to stick with your current console instead of upgrading to the next.
It’s much better for the environment to use what you already have than throw them out for the next generation of devices.
Similarly, many video game series such as FIFA pump out a new title each year. There are 28 main entries to the FIFA franchise, with further spin-offs. Many people wonder if they’re playing the same game every year, but the trouble with FIFA’s annual releases is actually in its waste.
Before downloadable games, collections of FIFA games could easily jump into the tens, and many wouldn’t play the older releases once they had the newest entry.
The FIFA franchise has sold over 325 million copies – but what happens to those unsold by the time the next is released?
In 2014, thousands of game cartridges were unearthed at the fabled Atari game burial site in a landfill in New Mexico. An expected 728,000 cartridges of the game E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial were said to be buried there, many of which were too deep to be excavated.
It makes you wonder how many other landfills have been used to store failed or overproduced video games, especially with the rise of digital distribution services like Steam, Origin, and the Epic Games Store.
How might video games be used to solve global and environmental problems?
Video games have a lot of potential to help people across the world.
While mostly seen as a source of entertainment and escapism, video games can also be very educational. They promote social interaction across the world, enabling people to be exposed to other cultures and encouraging working as a team.
The UN’s Environment Programme is also aware of the potential of video games, and is exploring ways of incorporating “environmental and nature-related content” through games.
Playing For The Planet is an alliance that commits to reducing corporate carbon footprints, inserting “green nudges” into games, offsetting emissions, recycling to control plastic and e-waste, and making important changes in the gaming industry.
One in five gamers are under the age of 18, and those under 35 are well over half of the video gamer population in the United States.
The UN recognizes that young people are “agents of change” and seek to inform and foster young people to make long-lasting behavior changes. The video game industry is one of the biggest industries able to achieve this.
Video games have also made a massive social impact.
During the 2019-20 Australian bushfire season, Space Ape Games raised £120,000 for wildlife and humanitarian charities. In the UK, GameBlast runs annual charity gaming marathon weekends in support of SpecialEffect, changing the lives of disabled gamers.
Games that promote or focus on environmental issues can be a great source of information to people who might otherwise be unaware of solutions.
Pixelberry Studios’s interactive story game Choices added a story called “Rising Tides” for the Green Mobile Game Jam to explore how they could educate and empower players about climate change.
Studies have shown that video games can encourage citizen science, networking, and research.
They can educate youth and children, and many students find engaging with educational games can help make it easier to learn from them.
I remember a dinosaur puzzle game when I was young teaching me about geography and fossils, and video games have only gotten better.
Video games can even be used to simulate sustainable futures.
This can help promote sustainability science concepts and encourage sustainable practices by not making growth the goal of the game.