“How many more warnings do we need? The science is clear, it’s unequivocal.”
Author and researcher Ben Abraham is pissed. We’re speaking in April, a few days after the IPCC released its most contentious report yet. It stressed that in order to keep warming to the Paris Agreement’s goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius humanity needs to cut emissions by 43 percent by 2030. Talking to me over Zoom from his home in Sydney, Abraham wants more direct action—protests, absolutely—but also industry insiders to agitate for change, applying a different kind of grassroots pressure. “This is the only game in town now,” he says. “How do we prevent our planet from being boiled alive?”
For the video game industry—from indie developers, AAA studios, and hardware manufacturers to players themselves—Abraham’s new book, Digital Games After Climate Change, has answers. It offers a panoramic, systematized view of the entire industry, illuminating the ways in which so many people’s favorite hobby, often their escape from bad news, is, in fact, exacerbating the climate crisis. While writing the book’s introduction in 2019, Abraham thought of how he experienced this fact as a child while gaming in his parents’ loft during intense Australian heat. Without air-conditioning, the room was already stifling, but with numerous energy-intensive devices switched on—a console, CRT television, PC, and monitor—it became nigh-on unbearable. These video games, powered by electricity which was being generated from burning fossil fuels, existed in a feedback loop with the very atmosphere.
A Lack of Leadership
Gaming’s hunger for energy has only risen since the 1990s according to Evan Mills, coauthor of groundbreaking papers on the subject. Increased graphical intensity has seen electricity consumption rise, online multiplayer games require both players’ devices and energy-intensive data centers, and the increasingly tiny chips of modern consoles demand significantly more electricity to make by virtue of the hyper-controlled conditions in which they’re manufactured (which include air filtration and chemical treatments). Despite overall improvements in the energy efficiency of modern devices, Abraham writes that “gaming is still, by and large, a leisure activity—and presently it is a relatively carbon-intensive one,”
Abraham points out that the carbon commitments of the leading console manufacturers and producers of digital content, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, vary. Microsoft plans to be carbon negative by 2030—“ambitious but achievable,” says Abraham. Sony, meanwhile, having previously only made a vague commitment to a “zero environmental footprint” by 2050, recently announced a revised 2040 carbon-neutral target alongside efforts to use 100 percent renewable energy in its own operations by 2030. (The company didn’t respond to a request for comment when contacted.)
Nintendo, meanwhile, offers no promises on carbon or environmental neutrality. Somewhat remarkably, Abraham points to discrepancies in Nintendo’s reporting of its renewable energy usage which, according to its 2019 CSR report, sat at 98 percent. In the following year’s CSR report, what should have been the same 2019 figure had changed to just 4.2 percent. Abraham attributes the error to a mix-up of kWh and MWh, but he suggests that the company’s failure to report its own numbers accurately (a criticism he also levels at EA) is indicative of a failure to treat the issue seriously. (When contacted, Nintendo declined to comment on the discrepancy in reporting and instead pointed to its most recent CSR report which states that its renewable energy usage is now 44 percent.)
These assorted approaches, says the researcher, reflect an industry that “lacks leadership.” The closest the industry has to this is Playing for the Planet, a UN Environment program involving gaming companies such as Microsoft, Sony, and Ubisoft. Abraham says it’s vital that an organization like this exists to exert pressure and provide guidance, but that its impact is ultimately limited. “We still need regulatory intervention, a legal framework, and standards of energy efficiency,” he continues. As an example of this strategy, Abraham refers to recent legislation in California that puts a hard limit on power consumption of electronic devices to the extent that Dell no longer ships some of its energy-hungry Alienware gaming PCs to the state. The law, he says, is currently “pretty generous,” but there’s scope to intensify it in the future, likely as the climate crisis worsens.
What Is an Ecological Video Game?
One of the ways game makers may hope to foster change is through games themselves. Titles such as Beyond Blue, Eco, and Endling have foregrounded climate and environmental themes as a means of education and persuasion, building on the writer Jane McGonigal’s idea that games and their systems of play can engender changes in thinking, behavior, and even the world.
Abraham, however, remains unconvinced by games’ potential to influence people to the extent that the climate crisis requires. “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 challenges of persuading people around an issue as contentious and ideological as the climate, it doesn’t seem to be a battle that can be won this way.”