The Video Game Industry Is Slowly Waking Up to Climate Change
With a secondhand solar panel, a battery and a Raspberry Pi minicomputer, indie game developer Kara Stone got the server powering her games running for just a few hundred dollars. When people point out that cloudy days could leave the server unpowered and her games inaccessible, Stone says that’s part of the point.
“We can’t expect everything to be constantly available to us 24-7, and it’s OK that things are temporarily up and then down,” Stone said.
To further reduce its carbon impact, her next game, Known Mysteries, uses highly compressed video footage to shrink its data footprint. In stark contrast to the ultra-high-definition images found in today’s top-tier games, the visuals are as fuzzy as videos from old Encarta CD encyclopedias. Unlike modern big-budget titles, which often top 100GB, an early version of her game was just 200MB in size — intentionally constrained game design, resulting in lower impact on the climate.
Stone is one of a growing number of game developers taking climate responsibility into their own hands. The gaming industry has been slow to recognize that creating and playing video games consumes a lot of energy and produces emissions — which contributes to climate change. Advocates for more sustainable game development argue video games must reduce their impact on the planet.
And while the video game industry is paying more attention to sustainability, only a portion of gaming companies release climate impact data. Even fewer account for how much energy is used by gamers around the world.
Read more: After Climate Change, What Does a ‘Livable Future’ Look Like?
A cruise liner sinking itself
By conservative estimates, the $184 billion video game industry consumes a similar amount of energy and produces a comparable amount of emissions as the global film industry — or that of the European country of Slovenia, says Australian academic-turned-consultant Ben Abraham. Abraham’s 2020 book, Digital Games After Climate Change, is one of the handful of thorough investigations of how the video game industry’s emissions impact the planet.
Abraham broadly estimates the gaming industry produced between 3 million and 15 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2020 to create video games. That includes energy bought from local grids and used to keep the lights on and computers powered as developers make games.
Abraham’s estimate doesn’t account for a wide range of other activities, from making consoles and computer hardware to shipping games to players (or powering servers for them to download digitally) to flying developers and executives out for business meetings and conferences.
We can get one window into the sheer scale of these emissions from one of the world’s largest game studios, Ubisoft. Of the company’s annual carbon footprint (which was 148 kilotons of carbon dioxide in 2021), only 5% to 10% is from the company’s direct operations. The remaining emissions break down to around 10% to 15% to distribute games over networks and into retail stores, 40% for producing gaming devices and 40% for player use, including the energy used to power PCs and consoles
Microsoft estimates that the average gamer with a high-performance gaming device consumes 72 kilograms of carbon dioxide annually. In the US alone, gamers generate 24 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, according to a Project Drawdown report.
Game makers aren’t ignorant of what’s happening. Some of the biggest companies have set sustainability targets. Late last year, Abraham released a report focusing on the 33 largest publishers and studios in the industry that have set net-zero emissions goals. He found that 10 have ambitious plans to reach the milestone before 2030, including tech giants like Microsoft, Apple and Google, but also Ubisoft, Tencent and Riot Games. Sony has set a net-zero goal of 2040, while Activision Blizzard, Bandai Namco, Konami and Sega have set theirs for 2050 — the bare minimum, Abraham said.
“Anything less than that, you are basically committing to destroying the planet,” Abraham said.
Each of these companies has a different strategy for getting to net-zero emissions, including offsetting, or buying green energy credits to “cancel out” what’s consumed in fossil fuel energy, a tactic seen by critics as a form of greenwashing.
Read more: The Green Revolution Is Being Held Back by Red Tape
Righting the ship
Every year, tens of thousands of game developers converge on San Francisco to meet at the Game Developers Conference. They swap business cards and meet over potential partnerships in between panel presentations where peers share contacts and lessons learned in the brutal, competitive world of game development. At this year’s GDC in late March, hidden in the packed schedule of hundreds of events were a handful dedicated to climate change.
The most high-profile event was Microsoft’s showcase for a new software toolkit. Named the Xbox Developer Sustainability Toolkit, it guided developers to clean up their games’ performance, which can result in more effective energy consumption. Microsoft has also implemented a number of updates allowing players more control over the energy consumption of their home consoles.
Given how performance and visuals tend to be fetishized by players (and games media), the competitive logic is to maximize at all costs. But shifting player attitudes in favor of climate-saving efforts has opened a door for Microsoft to find a way to reduce player-side emissions by empowering developers to improve efficiency in their games.
“It’s the first time that game developers have ever had real-time energy and emissions measurement tools in their hands,” Trista Patterson, Microsoft’s director of sustainability, told CNET. Patterson assumed the role after co-founding Playing for the Planet, an alliance of games companies that have made sustainability pledges.
The testing kit works like this: Devs can run through a game in progress, play a segment while watching the energy use and dive straight into the code from there.
Microsoft had Halo Infinite developers use the Sustainability Dev Kit to look for energy savings, and they discovered that lowering resolution and frames-per-second in areas players would least notice, like pause screens and menus, could save up to 55% of power without players noticing.
Microsoft is making the kit available to developers working on games outside PC and Xbox. When Xbox met with producers at Ubisoft to talk about the Sustainability Dev Kit, ideas were kicked around about future eco-modes in games to help lower consumers’ monthly energy bills and spotlight games’ low emissions to appeal to conservation-minded gamers, Patterson said.
Given Patterson’s experience at Playing for the Planet, it’s no surprise that she sees the possibility for the industry to unite and save itself. Gaming “is a wonderful artistic medium able to create alternative ways of looking at a problem,” Patterson said. Preserving games keeps alive a creative and joyful outlet for many, which is crucial in dark times, Patterson said.
“Play is the antidote of doom,” Patterson said.
Of the console makers, Microsoft is most focused on climate-related energy — or at least has made the most headlines doing so. As CNET Science Editor Jackson Ryan noted, giving players an optional software toggle probably won’t save much energy and seems like more of a PR stunt. Yet the company has given players options to reduce their own footprint, like with its new Xbox controllers made of recycled materials.
That’s still more deliberate action than platform holders like Sony and Nintendo. Both companies release corporate social responsibility reports that outline their respective actions toward sustainability. Nintendo, for instance, has a list of conservation regulations in countries where it operates that it complies with, but no clear overall strategy to reduce emissions.
“Reducing our environmental impact is one of our four global CSR priority areas and will continue as we work to advance these initiatives,” read an official statement provided to CNET by Nintendo.
Sony, on the other hand, has pledged to use 100% renewable energy in its internal operations by 2030. The company also aims to reach carbon neutrality across its entire operation by 2040, which includes making products and shipping them through supply chains, but it’s unclear if Sony also includes player emissions in this calculus.
Read more: How These 24-Ton Bricks Could Fix a Huge Renewable Energy Problem
At the Games Developers Conference, conversations and community
At GDC 2023, Sam Barrett, chief of Youth and Advocacy for the UN Environment Programme, explained to a couple dozen attendees how the gaming industry crowd could be taking additional steps at their companies to combat climate change. Barrett spoke for the Playing for the Planet Alliance, a collection of 40 game studios and publishers that pledge to reduce emissions.
Barrett led the crowd, most of whom were game developers, in an exercise tracking how sustainable their workplace is via a 10-step survey (available online here). But he was careful not to shame those in the audience whose workplaces haven’t yet taken any steps.
“If we set the bar so high that people don’t feel it’s for them, it becomes an elite community,” Barrett said. “We want to create a general community where nobody feels judged for where they’re at on this journey, and people are supportive and collaborative to help them go further, faster.”
The Alliance’s impact is slow but growing. Per its 2022 annual report, 64% of its members are seeking net-zero carbon or carbon neutrality, and its sustainability-themes-in-games Green Game Jam celebrated 2.5 million trees being planted in the real world thanks to member games, as well as a climate march in Ubisoft’s Riders Republic game.
That’s too slow for some in the audience, like Patrick Prax, associate professor at Uppsala University in Sweden.
“I think the games industry maybe hasn’t understood yet how serious the situation is or how much needs to be done,” Prax said during an interview with CNET at the GDC.
The gaming industry is still ahead of others that haven’t even started to look at their contributions to climate change, Prax said, but if the United Nations’ guidance is to fundamentally rewrite how our society works to combat climate change, we won’t get there quickly enough by fixing frame rates.
Prax has a definitive list of problems that need solving.
There’s emissions, but there’s also the components required to make consoles and PCs themselves. Coltan, an ore found in smartphones and games consoles, is widely reported to be mined by child slaves in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Pushing the full responsibility on players to lower emissions won’t work — it has to come from systemic change at the source of emissions. Like every industry feeling public pressure, gaming has two options, Prax posits: come up with solutions internally or face legislated regulations.
Legislation isn’t the best solution, as it can take years to pass or be stonewalled, but there also hasn’t been much of a push for video game companies to agree on industrywide emissions rules, either voluntary or mandated.
If the gaming industry needs to shift, so too does gaming and media culture. That includes softening player standards for bleeding-edge graphics. If studios and publishers are stepping up, games journalism can too, Prax said — perhaps by mentioning the energy cost to run games in their reviews.
Players shouldn’t be left out of the equation entirely, Prax said, and it could help to make it clear how much energy they’re using in real time. Some of his students at Uppsala University pitched interface icons telling players how efficient their console or PC was while playing.
Developers shifting the industry from within
Arnaud Fayolle was a Ubisoft developer who riled up his coworkers into forming pro-climate internal company interest groups until his employer created a climate-focused advocacy job for him. At the GDC, Fayolle gave a presentation explaining how attendees can use stories or mechanics that highlight climate issues. If players grapple with dwindling resources and fossil fuel energy sources with polluting consequences in games, maybe that’ll sink into their reality too.
The video game industry can take the lead by making content that educates players; content that motivates them to take action and adopt pro-environmental behaviors, Fayolle said. “In game design terms, we call this a positive reinforcement loop.”
Despite differing opinions, Prax, Fayolle and many others attended a pair of roundtables held by the International Game Developers Association Climate Special Interest Group, a community of gaming industry professionals, academics and researchers.
Nominally existing in an online Discord with around 800 members, the IGDA Climate SIG strategizes about how to rally the gaming industry from within and without. Gathered in person at the GDC, leaders of the SIG lined the chairs of the roundtable discussions to listen to how climate change is affecting gaming studios worldwide.
“In order for us to continue making and playing the games we love, our business operations have to evolve, the way we think about our content and our players needs to evolve and meet the needs that we need to be prepared for,” said Paula Angela Escuadra, a leader in the IGDA Climate SIG who is also a senior user experience strategist for cloud gaming at Xbox Game Studios.
In the absence of industrywide standards and resources regarding climate change in the workplace, the members of the Climate SIG have made their own Environmental Game Design Playbook to walk developers through greening their industry. From research, they identified four ways to predict how favorable someone is to combating climate change: knowledge of climate issues, pro-environmental attitude, confidence to make change and hope. By and large, developers who join the SIG probably have the first two, but are stuck on the third, Escuadra said.
Baking climate concerns into games seems like a bummer in a hobby players turn to for escapism, but it isn’t new — games have had climate-related plots and settings since the 1980s, because games are a reflection of what we see in the world. Modern indie games like I Was A Teenage Exocolonist engage with explicit themes of capitalism-induced climate destruction, but even mainstream blockbusters like Horizon Zero Dawn and Gears of War integrate climate change-related civilization collapse in their narratives.
“The long-term vision is that sustainability becomes integrated in every aspect of game development,” Escuadra said. “How every game developer wants to define that is up to them, and we’re here just to make it a little bit easier and measurable.”
Reflecting on climate realities also keys in on something unique to games — the inspiring power of making change while we play. This is the power that game developers have, Escuadra said: to create new worlds with major existential threats and put players in positions where they can build the tools to tackle them — and then try again if they fail.
“That safety is so important, and it’s safety that we don’t have in the real world,” Escuadra said. “If we’re able to just bring a little bit of that into the real world, the amount of things that we can do without people being so afraid of failing is incredible.”
It’s no surprise that Kara Stone is a member of the IGDA Climate SIG, and her solar server project embodies its ideals. She’s one of many game developers finding her own way to lower her game’s carbon footprint and even move away from reliance on fossil fuels.
“There’s different possibilities for the aesthetics of [your game], the actual design, the production, how it’s distributed,” Stone said. “There’s so many different ways that can be done, which I think is amazing.”