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US Gaming Carbon Footprint Is Huge as Platforms Target Greener Consoles

Last Updated September 23, 2020 1:16 PM
Simon Chandler
Last Updated September 23, 2020 1:16 PM
  • A study from researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory finds that U.S. gamers emit more carbon dioxide than Sri Lanka.
  • Gaming’s carbon footprint may increase with the rise of cloud-based streaming services.
  • The video game industry is actively working to make consoles and devices greener.

Gaming is expensive, and in more ways than one. According to a study published in The Computer Games Journal , video gamers in the United States produce as much as 24 megatonnes (24 million metric tons) of carbon dioxide per year. This makes U.S. gaming more costly to our environment than the entire activity of countries like Sri Lanka, Estonia, and Lebanon .

Worse still, the study’s authors found that newer forms of gaming – such as cloud-based streaming and VR – are much hungrier for energy. So the situation may get worse in the future as gamers increasingly migrate to online gaming and streaming platforms, at least according to lead author Evan Mills .

I think a likely future scenario is that mobile gamers, who expect a ‘play anywhere’ experience, would be more likely to move over to cloud-gaming services and so would end up with a higher energy footprint than regular mobile gaming because of associated energy usage of data centres and networking infrastructure.

Small Sample of Gamers

Luckily, the situation isn’t as dire as certain media reports  would have you believe. To begin with, the study was fairly small. The research team at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory worked with only 20 testers playing a variety of 26 different video game systems. This included all consoles released by Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony over the past decade and a half.

The researchers then extrapolated the results of their tests to all 134 million gaming systems in the U.S. and to all 50 states, which use a varying makeup of energy sources.

In other words, it’s possible that total carbon emissions may be less than 24 megatonnes per year. That said, even if it is 24 Mts, the video game industry is already working on reducing its carbon footprint.

Green Credentials

In September, Sony and Microsoft began what amounts to a trade war over who’s the most environmentally friendly company. First, Sony announced that its upcoming PlayStation 5 console would feature a ‘low-power’ standby button. This would consume only 0.5 watts, saving enough energy to power around 1,000 American homes if 1 million gamers use it.

A day later, Microsoft trumped Sony by revealing that it would be making 825,000 Xbox consoles carbon neutral. It didn’t state which models will be affected, yet it also explained that it’s already looking at what it can do to further reduce the impact of its devices in the long term.

And things don’t stop there. That very same month, Microsoft, Sony, Google, Ubisoft, and 17 other gaming companies signed up to the Playing for the Planet Alliance . As signatories to the UN-led initiative, they’ve committed to reducing gaming’s carbon footprint by 30 megatonnes by 2030. They’ll do this through a variety of ‘green nudges’ in gameplay, console design improvements, console recycling initiatives, and new energy management measures.

Cutting Energy Use by Half

Coupled with Microsoft and Sony’s emerging rivalry over which firm can hug more trees, this represents a big step forward in transforming the industry. And it’s likely only the beginning because the paper by Berkeley researchers concludes that targeted “hardware and software strategies can reduce the gaming energy use by approximately half.”

So rather than being a noxious source of carbon emissions, video gaming is gradually becoming greener. And when this is combined with a steady international transition to renewables  (particularly for domestic consumption), gamers can rest assured that their favorite pastime isn’t as much of a guilty pleasure as negative reports suggest.