Video Games and Their Environmental Impact

With each passing year, video games as an entertainment medium grow increasingly in popularity. Statistically, video games are now not only the most popular form of entertainment but the most profitable. Unfortunately, a rise in people consuming video games means an increase in material and energy consumption. So what impact does video game technology have on the environment?

The video game industry as it stands isn’t exactly as environmentally friendly as the world needs it to be. A large portion of materials used in the production of consoles, discs and packaging still contain high levels of carbon. The exterior of the PlayStation 4 is made of plastics called acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, and the interior frame made of polycarbonate. These plastics are made from petrochemicals derived from crude oil. Steel, copper and gold are a few other materials which are mined for the production of the PlayStations, Xbox’s and PC’s around the world.

The consumption of physical game copies and unnecessary packaging isn’t helpful, either. The majority of console games are still sold on disc (which are made of polycarbonate and aluminium) due to how large the storage file for a next-gen game can be. These discs (as well as the consoles they’re for) ultimately have to come with some form of packaging. Physical instruction manuals, plastic casings, shrink wrap, and polystyrene packaging are commonly used, and most often end up in a landfill.

Fortunately, game producers have begun to move toward more environmentally friendly forms of packaging. Ubisoft stopped creating physical game manuals as far back as 2010, and Sega’s Sports Interactive recently introduced fully recyclable packaging for their games.

Sports Interactive director Miles Jacobson on recyclable packaging

Another solution is to make the shift towards easier access to digital game copies and to fully begin to utilise cloud gaming services such as Google Stadia. Cloud gaming is a method which eliminates buying or downloading a copy of a game. Instead, the game is streamed to your device from a separate server (think Netflix, but for video games). Cloud gaming, unfortunately, is still in the beta stages of development. So it will still be a while before this becomes a truly viable option.

The other apparent environmental issue with video games is its high energy consumption and carbon emissions. It was found that PC gamers in America alone use roughly 75 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year. That’s equivalent to the output of 25 electric power plants. With the consistent rise in popularity of gaming, and what will hopefully a shift towards digital gaming in a bid to reduce waste, this statistic is only going to rise.

This issue isn’t being ignored by the gaming industry, however. Since 2012, Microsoft’s business operations have been carbon neutral. They are now aiming to make their products and devices carbon neutral as well. The company is making 825,000 of their Xbox Series X consoles carbon neutral as a part of a pilot program. It is aiming to reduce its carbon emissions by 30% by 2030.

Sony has also taking environmentally friendly gaming into consideration when developing their PlayStation 5. The PS5 will include a more power-efficient sleep mode for players, allowing users to put their gameplay on standby at around 0.5 watts. Sony has estimated that if 1 million people use this feature, the amount of energy saved would be equivalent to 1,000 American households.

Microsoft and Sony chose to include these features as a part of the global climate change initiative, the Playing for the Planet Alliance. The UN Environment Programme created the effort to work with major companies in the gaming industry (such as Twitch, Niantic and Ubisoft) to harness sustainable video game development. The initiative currently has 21 members and is taking an active role in improving the carbon footprint of the gaming industry.

Carbon-heavy practices are not an easy problem to solve. Climate change is still a severe and persistent threat to our planet. Unfortunately, we are only just beginning to move towards removing energy and product waste in many industries, including video games. It’s clear that there is a long road ahead towards the reduction of carbon emissions.

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