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Xbox, PS5 and the climate crisis: Next-gen video games could be worse for the planet

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Cleopatra did not prepare for her empire to be swallowed by the ocean. The Sphinx, an icon of her kingdom, choked on water. The queen of Egypt could only watch on as her great cities drowned. Farmlands became sea beds. Citizens were swept away by the hostile, rising tide. The port of Nekhen sunk into the abyss like a wounded submarine. 

Climate change had arrived in Egypt in 2140 AD.

This scenario played out, turn by turn, in Civilization VI, a strategy video game released in 2016. Its latest expansion, Gathering Storm, added the effects of climate change to the title as a gameplay system players would need to confront. As Cleopatra, I’d taken Egypt from the Stone Age to the Space Age. But climate change wrecked seaside ports and collapsed intercontinental trade routes. 

I opened the menu, clicked “Exit to desktop”and all that havoc melted away. For a few seconds. Outside, smoke haze from uncontrolled bushfires lingered on the horizon. Climate change arrived in Sydney in 2020 AD. There was no escaping it.

The video game industry cannot escape it, either, but it has been slow to take definitive action in addressing the realities of climate change. It’s one thing to depict the effects of climate change in games, another altogether for developers, manufacturers, publishers and the world’s largest video game companies to address the environmental impacts.

“I don’t think it occurred to many people in the games industry to ask what sort of climate impact came directly from making and playing games,” says Clark Stacey, CEO of Utah-based games studio WildWorks. 

But there’s a creeping realization that video games are contributing to the degradation of our environment, and in the past few months developers have been making proactive moves. Playing for the Planet, an initiative asking major players in the industry to address climate change, was announced by Norwegian environmental foundation GRID-Arendal at the Climate Action Summit in September. Industry heavyweights Sony, Microsoft and Google have all pledged their support.

The truth is simple: Our world is going to get hotter. The next decade, in particular, promises to be transformative for the planet — and for the video game industry.

And the future appears to be more energy-intensive than ever: In 2020, Microsoft and Sony will release powerhouse new consoles with unheralded computing performance. Our dreams of virtual reality and augmented reality will finally be realized, and cloud gaming services, only just sputtering to life, will birth an era of power-hungry constant connection to our avatars and digital worlds. 

The next generation of video game consoles and services is coming. There’s no escaping them. What consequences will they have for the planet?

400

Video games are enamored of numbers. Role-playing games, like Final Fantasy, are bursting with digits denoting health and magic. Here’s an important real-world one: 400.

In 2013, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in over 3 million years. The year 2013 also saw the release of Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4. Since that time, carbon dioxide levels have continued to grow, recently reaching 413 ppm. 

Consoles alone didn’t drive CO2 levels to those heights, of course, but they contribute a notable chunk to the carbon budget through production and product use each year. 

A breakdown of the PS4 by the Verge suggests assembly of the 100 million PlayStation 4 units sold since 2013 has generated approximately 9.8 million tons of carbon dioxide. If you slot those contributions into the global picture, it puts the console in 108th place for emissions in 2016, outranking countries like Costa Rica and Moldova. Factoring in energy, that figure doubles, reaching almost 22 million tons.

Then there’s the Xbox One, manufactured by Microsoft. The company’s “eco profiles” provide a breakdown of carbon emissions based on manufacturing, production, product use and packaging. According to the profile for Xbox One, a single console emits 1.23 tons of carbon dioxide over an eight-year lifecycle. The Xbox One S, released in 2016, is much more ecologically friendly at 0.76 ton. 

Building in some assumptions around hours of use and sales, the best-case scenario would put the carbon emissions of the Xbox One on par with those of the PS4. Less conservative estimates would put emissions at somewhere around 35 million tons, the same as taking 95 million flights from New York to Los Angeles.

Unlimited power

To assess the carbon footprint of the video game industry over the next 10 years, the best place to start is with energy.

It’s estimated that as much as one-third of the planet’s population plays video games. More of us are playing games for longer periods of time, up to almost seven hours a week. Coupled with the gigantic technological leaps over the last decade, energy use in video games has skyrocketed. 

The humble Atari Pong console, one of the first home consoles released in the 1970s, used around 10 watts of power. Today’s high-performance gaming computers, equipped with the most cutting-edge hardware, can draw up to 70 times that amount.

Those figures come from the most comprehensive study on gaming’s energy use, conducted by Evan Mills and a team of researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2018. The research team examined the power draw of 26 gaming systems including desktop PCs, gaming laptops and home consoles manufactured by Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo at a purpose-built lab dubbed the “Green Gaming lab.” 

Its rigorous protocol of testing and analysis revealed that PCs and the current generation of home consoles accounted for around 2.4% of residential electricity expenditures in the US, resulting in carbon emissions of around 24 million tons. That’s about the same as the country of Sri Lanka emitted in 2017. 

Mills and his team showed that home consoles — and all the associated devices like TVs and peripherals — were responsible for 66% of home energy use from gaming in 2016. And that’s with current-day consoles. With two of the major players in that space set to release new consoles in the holiday period this year, carbon emissions could soar even higher.

The Xbox Series X is set to arrive for “holiday 2020.”

Microsoft

Generation gap

In 2020, the never-ending console wars will reset. Microsoft is slated to drop its Xbox Series X, Sony will release the PlayStation 5, and gaming will have officially entered the eighth generation

Details about the Series X have been trickling out since its reveal at the Game Awards in 2019, while Sony has mostly stayed mum on PS5 details, teasing a logo and only recently talking specs

The tagline for Microsoft’s new console is three words: “Fastest. Most powerful.” Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, wrote in a February press release that the Xbox Series X is “defined by more playing and less waiting” and filled paragraphs with tech-speak like TFLOPS, VRS and raytracing. It’s clear that Xbox is putting stock in power and speed this generation.

An early analysis of the technical specifications of the Series X by hardware analysis website Digital Foundry suggested that power consumption could get as high as 300 watts. “If this is correct, this would put the Series X at a power level higher than anything we’ve seen in the history of consoles,” says Evan Mills, the researcher who led the Green Gaming study. The console’s carbon footprint could increase, over an eight-year period, to something like 138 million tons. Maria Gallucci at Grist rightly points out that this puts the console at odds with Microsoft’s climate goals and it’s ambitious plan to become “carbon negative” by 2030

Microsoft, part of the UN’s Playing for the Planet Alliance, has pledged to create 825,000 “carbon neutral” Xbox One X consoles. With approximately 50 million consoles sold, that is just under 2% of all consoles made. The consoles will be manufactured in the same way as other Xbox Ones, but Microsoft will make them carbon-neutral by purchasing high-quality carbon offsets and using renewable energy.

Then there’s Sony. On March 18, Mark Cerny, lead system architect on the PS5, detailed what’s lurking under the hood. The presentation revealed the PS5’s internals are pretty similar to those in the Series X, but there was no talk of energy draw or environmental impact. The only inkling we’ve got of how Sony might tackle this with the PS5 comes via Jim Ryan, president and CEO of Sony Interactive Entertainment, who announced that the console would be able to “suspend gameplay with much lower power consumption than PS4.”

He said that if 1 million users enable this feature “it would save equivalent to the average electricity use of 1,000 US homes.” 

Assuming Sony is using yearly numbers, we can work out exactly what kind of energy the machine might end up saving. The US Environmental Protection Agency says that a single US home consumes, on average, 12,146 kWh per year, generating about 6.5 tons of carbon. Every million users could save 6,500 tons of carbon. That’s 0.004% of Sony’s CO2 emissions from gaming in 2018, which totaled 1,807,261 tons

Switch off

Nintendo offers a potential alternate route for gaming’s eighth generation.

The Japanese gaming behemoth’s latest console, the handheld/home console hybrid Switch, was released in 2017. It uses “vastly less energy” than its competitors, according to Mills, though there are obvious differences: lower processing power and graphical fidelity. If players purely wanted better graphics and more realistic games, the Switch would have bombed — but it has sold more units than the Xbox One in half the time. 

“There’s nothing inherent in games that says they have to be energy intense,” says Ben Abraham, a digital media researcher at the University of Technology, Sydney. He points to the success of The Breath of the Wild, one of the Switch’s most acclaimed games, with almost 18 million copies sold.

Zelda

Breath of the Wild is one of the most critically lauded games of all time. “We love it,” says Ben Abraham.

Nintendo

This is a well-trodden path for Nintendo, which has emphasized gameplay experiences overf absolute power gains reaching back to the Wii. That juggernaut of a console remains the company’s best-selling of all-time and it championed a unique control system, rather than bleeding-edge graphics, processor speeds and decreased loading times. 

“It seems Nintendo has found a formula that delivers gobs of ‘fun’ without any beefed-up hardware hype, but maybe there’s only so much room in the market for that,” says Norm Bourassa, a senior engineer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a contributor to the Green Gaming study. 

The net result is a system with a tiny carbon footprint compared to its contemporaries. As the industry continues to move in the direction of energy-intensive experiences like virtual reality, it’s easy to see a push toward being able to plug in to fantastical, photorealistic worlds we can interact with. Will “fun” be enough for players seeking more immersive experiences?

Bourassa notes some anecdotal, unpublished evidence he encountered during his studies that suggests, perhaps, visuals aren’t everything to players. During testing, he adjusted the resolution of a VR headset down without the player’s knowledge. After the test was complete, Bourassa alerted the player to the change, but they responded they hadn’t noticed because they were “totally into the game.”

Developers hold a lot of power when it comes to tackling climate change, believes Ben Abraham. Abraham’s current research effort involves surveying video game developers to get a better estimate of the carbon footprint of game production. He contends that creating a green, more environmentally conscious games industry begins with the teams making video games.

“Until carbon emissions become an actual liability, I think a top-down approach is going to be harder than simply getting developers to stand up for having a say in the way their workplace works,” he says.

Abraham’s survey has only received around 23 responses to date but it’s beginning to paint a picture of energy use and attitudes in development. He tells the story of one respondent who suggested there would be “no impact” on the climate even if the whole industry became carbon-neutral tomorrow. 

“If they’re talking about an impact that might fundamentally change, say, the global trajectory of the climate system, then games by themselves will likely not have an impact,” he adds. However, he posits that if the goal is to wean the planet off its reliance on fossil fuels, someone has to lead the charge and the games industry, then, does have an important role to play. 

“Games can either get on board with a movement already happening faster elsewhere, or they can be left behind,” he says.

Space Ape Games, a mobile games developer based in London, is definitely on board.

The studio, a subsidiary of Finnish games giant Supercell, recently announced its inclusion in the Playing for the Planet Alliance. In 2019, it went carbon-neutral for the first time. The studio’s mission is to offset double its own carbon emissions and, in addition, offset any carbon emissions generated by its player base. 

Last year, Space Ape offset approximately 1,870 tons of CO2, the equivalent of taking around 360 cars off the road for a year. The contribution of those who played Space Ape games amounted to around 200 tons, just over 10% of the total and the equivalent of about 40 cars. The team combatted this by purchasing carbon offsets, essentially buying into projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

Nic Walker, head of technical operations at Space Ape, concedes that offsets are “very much a ‘day one’ approach to environmental responsibility” but “remain the best way” to account for player emissions. More broadly, Space Ape’s strategy seems to indicate a shift in responsibility that sees developers acknowledge the impact of their games long after release.

Cloud strife

Space Ape’s head is firmly in the cloud. 

Developers and studios store game and user information in “the cloud,” networks of huge data centers across the world, so it can be accessed from anywhere with an internet connection. The data centers require huge amounts of energy and sophisticated cooling systems to keep running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year round. Unless those systems are supplied by a renewable source, data centers contribute significantly to carbon emissions.  

“A typical cloud data center consumes as much energy as 25,000 households,” says Adel Toosi, a data engineer at Monash University. 

Decreasing the carbon footprint from cloud operations will be a particularly important task in the next decade. 

“Google and Apple are obviously leading the way here with all of their data centers powered 100% by renewable energy,” says Clark Stacey, head of WildWorks. “That requires them to both invest in renewable power projects directly, and purchase a massive amount of renewable juice on the open market — driving further investment in the sector.”

Other gaming companies are moving toward data centers powered by renewable energy, too. French gaming giant Ubisoft, creator of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, has three data centers across the world, two of which run on 99% renewable energy, with minuscule carbon footprints. However, the company’s data centers generated 518 metric tons of CO2 in 2018, a 19% increase year over year.

While studios like Space Ape and Ubisoft use cloud operations and data centers to deliver online features of their games over the internet, 2020 could see cloud gaming services, like Google Stadia and Nvidia‘s GeForce Now, become more prominent. It’s like Netflix for video games, enabling premium content to be streamed directly to devices, including phones and tablets. The data center does all the heavy lifting behind the scenes and streams the game over the web — that takes juice.

“The amount of energy services like Google Stadia consume is significantly higher than other services, as graphics processing is energy-intensive,” says Toosi.

With improvements to telecommunications tech like super-fast 5G just over the horizon, it’s easy to see how these services might explode in the next 10 years. 

If such a future comes to pass, gaming’s carbon footprint will increase dramatically. Mills’ and Bourassa’s Green Gaming laboratory has shown cloud services can double the energy draw from games systems in some instances. With forecasts showing that data centers could make up 60% of all electricity use in the communications industry by 2025, there’s an imperative to make them more efficient and to power them using renewable sources. 

For the players

Video games can’t escape the wider societal, cultural and political landscape in which they’re created. In the last five years, the video game industry has wrestled with issues of sexism and racism, abuse, harassment and more recently, the working conditions of developers. 

“The ins and outs of the industry are much more visible to the audience than they’ve been in the past,” says Morgan Jaffitt, a veteran game developer and founder of Defiant Development.

He points to the continuing conversations about “crunch”, a culture in some game development studios where employees are expected to put in monstrous 80-hour work weeks to meet deadlines. Though it’s been discussed for almost 20 years, crunch culture is now an issue that touches not just those who make the games, but also those who play them. 

“We’re seeing audiences say ‘I would rather this game was late than the team were death-marched over it’,” says Jaffitt. With more and more windows into the game development process via social networks and savvy investigative reporting, the curtain has been pulled back. Audiences don’t always like what they find lurking behind it. Some are willing to boycott titles altogether. 

But when it comes to carbon footprints, transparent access to accurate and honest data is hard to come by. Console manufacturers and developers bury details of their emissions in annual reports or corporate responsibility documents. Only around half the publishers we examined make emissions data public in annual reports, and of publishers in the top 10 by revenue, we could not find data for major studios like Activision Blizzard, Tencent, NetEase, Take Two Interactive and Electronic Arts. For a majority of companies that did report carbon emissions, details about how much video games contributed to their overall footprint was not recorded.

When contacted and pressed for carbon emission data, a Microsoft spokesperson said the company is “committed to sustainability” and “continuing to explore how we can reduce our environmental impact across the product life cycle.” Sony and Nintendo did not respond to a request for comment.

As digital media researcher Abraham points out, carbon emissions are not a liability right now. Major studios and console manufacturers are under little pressure to widely release their emissions data. Some companies are doing extremely well If we want that to change, Jaffitt notes, “we need to put pressure on them using the means that we have, both as consumers and as rabble-rousers.”

What does that change look like and what do we — Candy Crushers, Guitar Heroes, Super Mario Brothers, players, users, gamers — actually want? That’s the $124.8 billion question. 

Next level

Who, ultimately, will be responsible for greening the gaming industry? 

The answer differs, depending on who you ask, but the sentiment is mostly the same: The challenges video games now face are the same challenges faced by wider society in combating the climate crisis. The responsibility extends from the top of the food chain, where mega-corporations with billions of dollars exist, all the way down to individual players, on their couch with a controller in hand. 

“We have the same responsibility as every other industry to uncover the real environmental costs of our products, measure them, publicize those measurements, and aggressively reduce them,” says Clark Stacey, from WildWorks. But, he notes, it would not be surprising to find most companies in the industry have no idea what their carbon footprint even looks like. 

In 2020, consumer electronics devices are piling up. More are on their way. We want the newest, the fastest, the most powerful. Part of the marketing cycle is talking up specs, just as Microsoft is already doing for the Xbox Series X, and watching fans speculate about how impressive the next generation will be. It seems players still yearn for better resolutions, higher frame rates and ever-more-impressive graphics.

Our cultures, our sense of self, our personalities and social lives are intertwined with these technologies. There’s no escaping them. What can be done?

“For individuals,” says Jaffitt, “I think the biggest thing is you’ve got to try and become informed.”

And that seems more and more likely in the next decade. It’s only a matter of time before developers, publishers and manufacturers will have to confront an ecologically conscious and ethically aware fanbase who want the fastest and most powerful devices, without compromising on sustainability. “People are concerned about the ethical impact of the supply chain from end to end,” notes Jaffitt.

When I logged back into Civilization VI and loaded the dominion of Egypt into the system memory, it was still underwater. The farmlands still disappeared, citizens still swept out to sea.  All the while, the coal-fired power plants of Egypt continued to spew carbon dioxide into the digital sky. 

Cleopatra could see it coming, but she did not prepare for her empire to be swallowed by the ocean.

But we can.  

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