Within a couple generations, after climate change has more visibly ravaged the Earth, the easiest way for humanity to interact with lush forests and icy glaciers might be video games. It’s a bleak, maybe science-fiction potential future, but not an improbable one; according to some analyses, we have just 12 years to suppress catastrophic climate change.
Yet at the same time as games present themselves as tempting vehicles for environmental escapism, the hard reality is that the games industry is a significant contributor to the demolition of our planet.
Gaming consoles rely on minerals mined using techniques that can leave behind toxic water. Factories for hardware produce massive amounts of energy and chemicals. Console and game shipments rely on supply chains networked across the globe, which, in turn, rely on fuel for airplanes and trucks. Every year, PC gamers use 75 billion kilowatts hours of electricity—25 power plants’ worth, according to retired Department of Energy Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientist Evan Mills. And then there’s e-waste. When the PlayStation 5 comes out, your PlayStation 4 might become e-waste, reintroducing chemicals back into the environment. According to Greenpeace, in 2017, there was enough e-waste to bury San Francisco under 14 feet of used electronics.
Against this background, it’s hard to envision a world where video games are anything but disastrous for the environment. And yet, yesterday, during the United Nations Climate Action Summit, 21 gaming companies, including Sony and Microsoft, announced an industry-wide initiative to combat climate change called Playing for the Planet. In what might be a brilliantly-timed PR move or an earnest effort to change the tides of global climate catastrophe, these companies have made pledges ranging from reducing supply chain emissions by 30 percent by 2030 to, a little less impressively, “putting green nudges” into games’ plots.
Playing for the Planet says commitments they received from gaming companies will help reduce CO2 emissions by 30 million tons by 2030. Here are some of the major ones, as detailed in Playing for the Planet’s press release:
- Sony Interactive Entertainment will unveil new progress and plans to utilize energy efficient technology (on-track to avoid 29 million tonnes of CO2 emissions by 2030), to introduce low power suspend mode for next generation PlayStation, to assess and report their carbon footprint and to educate and inspire the gaming community to take action on climate change.
- Microsoft will announce the expansion of its existing operational commitment to carbon neutrality, established in 2012, into its devices and gaming work. It will set a new target to reduce its supply chain emissions by 30 per cent by 2030–including end-of-life for devices–and to certify 825,000 Xbox consoles as carbon neutral in a pilot program. In addition, Microsoft will engage gamers in sustainability efforts in real life through the Minecraft ‘Build a Better World’ initiative, which has seen players take more than 20 million in-game actions.
- Google Stadia, which is set to launch later in the year, will produce a new Sustainable Game Development Guide as well as funding research into how “green nudges” can be effectively incorporated into game play.
- Supercell (Clash of Clans) will offset the entire footprint of their community, Rovio (Angry Birds) has offset the carbon impact from their players charging their devices, and Sybo (Subway Surfer) and Space Ape (Fastlane) will offset 200 per cent of their studio and their gamers’ mobile energy use. Guidance documents will assist other companies to take similar actions.
- Wild Works (Animal Jam) will integrate restoration elements in games and, like Green Man Gaming, they will focus on restoring some of the world’s forests with major tree-planting initiatives.
- Ubisoft will develop in-game green themes and will source materials from eco-friendly factories.
- Sports Interactive will eliminate 20 tonnes of packaging by switching from plastic to a recycled alternative for all future Football Manager releases.
Commitments from Nintendo, Take-Two Interactive, Activision Blizzard and King—four of the biggest gaming companies—are notably absent from the list. Kotaku has reached out to these companies for comment on why and has not heard back.
Evan Mills, a retired senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who has studied the environmental impact of gaming, applauded the alliance’s effort in a press release while pointing out that Intel, AMD and NVIDIA were absent from it. “The focus seems to be mostly on the console-gaming space, which is meaningful since consoles use much more energy in aggregate than desktop gaming. That said, missing from the participants are leading makers of desktop and console gaming componentry,” he said. Gaming companies are often allergic to taking a stance.
Of the herd, Microsoft and Sony announced some of the most sweeping changes. In a blog post earlier this week, Microsoft justified its decisions to reduce its supply chain emissions and shift from carbon neutral operations to carbon neutral products with the statement that “It’s clear, given the science, that targets should be even more ambitious than the Paris Accord targets, which mapped to a 2 degree rise.” Sony’s blog post says that the PlayStation 5 will “will include the possibility to suspend gameplay with much lower power consumption than PS4.” If one million users enable it, it added, “It would save equivalent to the average electricity use of 1,000 US homes.”
The initiative’s report on how gaming “can deliver for people and the environment” goes quite easy on companies that make consoles and games—in its words, “fastest growing sub-segment of data usage.” “The video game industry is making a tidal shift towards sustainability,” the report begins before stating its two main directives: goals for restoration of forests and reforestation, and ‘nudges’ that move companies and individuals towards more planet-friendly choices.” Most of the report deals with how the content of games can be leveraged to make gamers more aware of climate change. The report never once references the word “minerals,” and doesn’t meaningfully discuss gaming’s carbon footprint until page 20 of 25.
There’s a question of accountability. Commitments are good, but not without follow-through. Although the alliance consists of a lot of different members, ranging from game developers to retailers, UN Environment representative Sam Barratt told Kotaku that Playing for the Planet says that accountability is possible. “The alliance will facilitate the sharing of best practices, ensuring commitments are met and then bring in other key partners in this industry.”
When asked whether Playing for the Planet’s report or the commitments made to the initiative went far enough, Gary Cook, author of the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics, told Kotaku, “Largely, no. It’s great you have a mix of companies saying, ‘Hey, we are concerned about climate change and want to be doing something,’ but the actions they’re taking here, for the most part, are not going to move the needle and are not reflective of the significant impact the gaming industry has on the environment.” Cook thinks that, unless gaming companies acknowledge that significant impact, “they’re just giving lip service to a problem without actually doing anything.”
Cook’s biggest concerns are the manufacturing, use-phase power-suck and impact of the waste (less than 20 percent of electronics are recycled, according to a United Nations University report, which impacts the demand for mined materials like cobalt). Cook cited a recent study claiming that gaming takes up five percent of electricity consumption for residential use. And although some companies like Google aim for a future where the processing burden shifts from home electronics to the Cloud, Cook says, “Your local energy use might not have changed, but you’re consuming as much power as one or three refrigerators from the Cloud side.” (Google recently made the biggest renewable energy purchase in history, however, the impact of Cloud gaming is not mentioned in the Playing for the Planet report.)
“A lot of their future customers are really concerned about climate change and are demanding that governments and corporations take action and treat it like the emergency it is,” said Cook of gaming companies.
Yesterday, when 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg uttered the words “How dare you!” to the room of international world leaders assembled for the United Nations climate summit, Gen Z’s damned future felt nearer than ever. Her speech rode on the tails of the enormous, worldwide Global Climate Strike, led by millions of youth. Gen Z is stepping up and pressuring leaders to do the right thing, at the same time as they’re known as the most tech-addicted generation yet.
Gaming companies will need to reflect the concerns of their consumer bases. At the same time, they ought not to shift the onus to subvert climate disaster on their customers when the companies constitute the “structure” in “structural change.”