“How many more do we need warnings? The science is clear, it is unequivocal.”
Author and researcher Ben Abraham is angry. We speak in April, days after the IPCC released its most controversial report yet. It stressed that humanity must cut emissions by 43 percent by 2030 to reach the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 degree Celsius warming target. Speaking to me on Zoom from his Sydney home, Abraham wanted more direct action – protests, absolutely – but also industry insiders to agitate for change and create a different kind of grassroots pressure. “It’s the only game in town now,” he says. “How do we prevent our planet from being cooked alive?”
For the video game industry – from indie developers, AAA studios and hardware manufacturers to the gamers themselves – Abraham’s new book offers Post-Climate Change Digital Games, has answers. It provides a systematic overview of the entire industry and sheds light on how so many people’s favorite hobby, often their flight from bad news, is actually exacerbating the climate crisis. Writing the book’s introduction in 2019, Abraham was thinking about how he had experienced this fact as a child playing in his parents’ attic during the intense Australian heat. The room was already stuffy without air conditioning, but with numerous energy-intensive devices turned on—a console, a CRT TV, a PC, and a monitor—it became almost unbearable. These video games, powered by electricity generated by burning fossil fuels, existed in a feedback loop with the atmosphere.
A lack of leadership
According to Evan Mills, co-author of seminal articles on the subject, gaming’s appetite for energy has only increased since the 1990s. Increased graphical intensity has led to an increase in power consumption, online multiplayer games require both player devices and energy-intensive data centers, and the ever-shrinking chips of modern consoles, due to the hyper-controlled conditions in which they are newly manufactured (including air filtration and chemical treatment). Despite general improvements in the energy efficiency of modern devices, Abraham writes that “gaming is still, by and large, a leisure activity – and currently a relatively carbon-intensive one”.
Abraham points out that the carbon commitments of the leading console manufacturers and digital content producers, Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, differ. Microsoft plans to be carbon negative by 2030 — “ambitious but doable,” says Abraham. Meanwhile, Sony, having previously only vaguely committed to a “zero environmental footprint” by 2050, recently announced a revised carbon-neutral target for 2040, along with efforts to achieve 100 percent renewable energy in its own operations by 2030 to use. (The company did not. I do not respond to a request for comment when contacted.)
Nintendo, meanwhile, is not offering any promises of carbon or environmental neutrality. Something remarkable, Abraham points out deviations in Nintendo’s reporting on renewable energy use, which was 98 percent according to the 2019 CSR report. In the CSR report of the following year, the value from 2019 had changed to just 4.2 percent. Abraham attributes the error to a confusion between kWh and MWh, but suggests that the company’s failure to accurately report its own numbers (a criticism he also embarks on EA) is an indication that the problem is not being treated seriously. (When asked, Nintendo declined to comment on the discrepancy in reporting, instead citing its most recent CSR report, which says renewable energy consumption is now 44 percent.)
These disparate approaches, the researcher says, reflect an industry that “lacks leadership.” The industry comes closest: Playing for the Planet, a UN environmental program involving gaming companies like Microsoft, Sony and Ubisoft. Abraham says it is important that an organization like this exists to provide pressure and guidance, but ultimately its impact is limited. “We still need regulatory intervention, a legal framework and standards for energy efficiency,” he continues. As an example of this strategy, Abraham points to recent legislation in California that limits the power consumption of electronic devices so severely that Dell no longer ships some of its power-hungry Alienware gaming PCs into the state. The law, he says, is “quite generous” at the moment, but there is scope to tighten it in the future, likely as the climate crisis worsens.
What is an ecological video game?
One of the ways game makers can hope to encourage change is through games themselves. Titles like Beyond Blue, Ecoand endling have brought climate and environmental issues to the fore as tools of education and advocacy, building on writer Jane McGonigal’s idea that games and their game systems can create changes in thinking, behavior and even the world.
However, Abraham remains unconvinced of the potential of games to impact people at the scale that the climate crisis demands. “It makes perfect sense. If you’re a game developer, you want to use your skills to help with the problem,” he says. “But when I look at the challenge of convincing people of such a controversial and ideological issue as climate, it doesn’t seem like a fight that can be won that way.”