“How many more do we need warnings? Science is clear, it is unequivocal. “
Author and researcher Ben Abraham is mad. We are talking in April, a few days after the IPCC released its most controversial report to date. It stressed that in order to keep warming to the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees Celsius, humanity needs to reduce emissions by 43 percent by 2030. When he talks to me about Zoom from his home in Sydney, Abraham wants more direct action – protests, absolutely – but also industry insiders to agitate for change by using another form of grassroots pressure. “This is the only game in town right 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 players themselves – Abraham’s new book, Digital games after climate change, has answers. It provides a panoramic, systematized overview of the entire industry, and highlights the ways in which so many people’s favorite hobbies, often their flight from bad news, actually exacerbate the climate crisis. While writing the book’s introduction in 2019, Abraham thought about how he experienced this fact as a child while playing in his parents’ attic under intense Australian heat. Without air conditioning, the room was already suffocating, but with several energy-intensive devices turned on – a console, CRT TV, PC and monitor – it became almost unbearable. These video games, powered by electricity, which were generated from burning fossil fuels, existed in a feedback loop with the atmosphere itself.
Lack of leadership
Gaming’s hunger for energy has only increased since the 1990s, according to Evan Mills, co-author of groundbreaking papers on the subject. Increased graphics intensity has led to an increase in power consumption, online multiplayer games require both players’ devices and energy-intensive data centers, and the increasingly tiny chips on modern consoles require significantly more electricity to make due to the hyper-controlled conditions in which they reproduced (which include air filtration and chemical treatments). Despite general improvements in the energy efficiency of modern devices, Abraham writes that “gaming is still, by and large, a leisure activity – and at the moment it is a relatively carbon-intensive activity.”
Abraham points out that the CO2 commitments of the leading digital content console manufacturers and producers, Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, vary. Microsoft plans to be CO2-negative by 2030 – “ambitious but achievable,” says Abraham. However, Sony has previously only given a vague commitment to a “zero environmental footprint” in 2050, recently announced a revised 2040 CO2-neutral target in parallel with efforts to use 100 percent renewable energy in its own operations by 2030. (The company did not respond to a request for comment when contacted).
Nintendo, meanwhile, makes no promises of carbon or environmental neutrality. Somewhat remarkably, Abraham points to inconsistencies in Nintendo’s reporting of its renewable energy consumption, which according to its 2019 CSR report stood 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 of kWh and MWh, but he suggests that the company’s failure to report its own figures accurately (a criticism he also addresses EA) are signs of failure to address the issue seriously. (When contacted, Nintendo declined to comment on the discrepancy in the reporting and instead pointed to its latest CSR report which indicates that its renewable energy consumption is now 44 percent.)
These different approaches, the researcher says, reflect an industry that “lacks leadership.” The closest the industry is to this is Playing for the planet, a UN environmental program involving gaming companies such as Microsoft, Sony and Ubisoft. Abraham says that it is crucial that an organization like this exists to exert pressure and provide guidance, but that its impact is ultimately limited. “We still need regulatory action, a legal framework and standards for energy efficiency,” he continues. As an example of this strategy, Abraham refers to recent legislation in California that sets a tough limit on the power consumption of electronic devices to the extent that Dell no longer sent some of its energy-intensive Alienware gaming PCs to the state. The law, he says, is currently “fairly generous”, but there is scope for intensifying it in the future, likely as the climate crisis worsens.
What is an organic video game?
One of the ways game makers can hope to make a difference is through games themselves. Titles such as Beyond Blue, Ecoand Endling has brought climate and environmental themes to the forefront as a means of education and persuasion, building on the author Jane McGonigal’s idea that games and their gaming systems can bring about changes in thinking, behavior and even the world.
However, Abraham is still not convinced of the potential of games to influence humans to the extent 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 challenges of persuading people around a topic as controversial and ideological as the climate, does not seem to be a battle that can be won in this way. “