TechScape: Will the video game industry one day be confronted with its carbon footprint? | Climate crisis

When a company tries to reduce its carbon footprint, how far should it aim? Is he responsible for the choices of his clients? What if he’s selling something that has no carbon footprint at all – until the second it’s used?

For some companies, overflowing with money, the answer is quite simple. Microsoft, for example, has pledged to become carbon negative by 2030 and ultimately to eliminate all carbon it has ever emitted from the environment by 2050. In this accounting, it even accepts the cost of using its products downstream: If you powered an Xbox on a diesel generator or charged a Zune using coal-fired power, Microsoft will offset those emissions.

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But for others, the decisions are more delicate. The games industry, in some ways, faces the purest distillation of this issue. It produces a hobby product, which exists almost entirely as software, and can, depending on the developer’s decisions, use as much electricity as boiling a kettle or as little as powering a wristwatch. So what does it mean to be a climate-conscious game developer?

This weekend, I spent time the WASD event in London, hoping to find an answer. Tamara Alliot, chief executive of games developer Nerial – and a former sustainability manager before getting into games – points out that there are plenty of ways for a developer to tackle their footprint before they even have to lend. pay attention to the most delicate philosophical points.

“The impact of playing the games is one of the impacts of the industry, but it’s not the only thing,” she says. “I think we have to recognize that there is a video game supply chain and a hardware life cycle. The life of the hardware, the energy and the materials used to make the computers themselves, c t is something for which everyone must take some responsibility.

According to Graeme Struthers, the co-founder of publisher Devolver, which will publish Nerial’s Next Card Shark. “A lot of companies are going to go through the process of trying to reduce their emissions and finding out that because they’re suddenly vastly remote, they can’t – and they shouldn’t – come into an employee’s life and saying ‘you have to put on a sweater!’ You have to turn down the heat!’ And so because of that, it’s traveling to events like [WASD] it’s the biggest piece of the puzzle.

Big fish, small fish, cardboard box

Some developers have made major changes in areas that are under their control. Sports Interactive, the developer of Football Manager, decided two years ago to be the change it wanted to see in the world and stopped shipping the game entirely in plastic boxes. “We are replacing the plastic box typically used in the industry with a reinforced, 100% recycled cardboard sleeve made with 100% recycled fibers,” said company chief executive Miles Jacobson. said at the time. “We changed the printing on the packaging to vegetable-based and water-based ink with a recycled paper manual inside and managed to source recyclable shrink wrap to wrap the packaging and keep it safe. during his travels.

Others have taken the approach that, as a cultural industry, the impact games can have on minds is likely to far outweigh efficiency adjustments in office spaces. “As game developers, what we can do is work, with everyone, to create an environment where change seems inevitable; where change feels like it’s a thing that should happen,” Tomas Rawlings of Bristol-based Auroch Digital said at the event, comparing the change he hoped to bring to attitude change. towards drunk driving a generation earlier.

But I was surprised as I visited the event how few people had even thought of the question in the terms I posed. The back-of-the-envelope math that led me to the event seemed austere: A high-end gaming PC, running a new game at the highest possible graphical fidelity, will draw around 1kW of power; much the same as a kettle. (That’s not counting the electricity needed for the monitor, and let’s not even get into the difficulties of estimating the power consumption of multiplayer components). In contrast, a Nintendo Switch only draws 10W, about the same as a low-light bulb, while playing a game like Breath of the Wild.

It’s actually about ethics in video game production

Talking about ethics and obligations in climate action is always difficult, and even more so when it comes to talking about a hobby that, let’s be honest, nobody Needs to do at all. But I can’t think of many other activities where the carbon footprint can differ a hundredfold with so little practical difference to the user.

If you play games, the reveal probably makes little difference to you. Unless you lead a very, very strange life, the electricity used by your machine of choice is only a tiny fraction of your personal footprint. (And if you’re living this weird life, then honestly, your decision to become a cooped-up vegan sitting in a tiny house heated exclusively by the exhaust from your massive gaming rig is probably ethically laudable.)

But if you’re making games, I’m not sure the difference can be easily overlooked. Take Elden Ring, the current star of the zeitgeist. According to review site SteamSpy, the PC version has between 10 and 20 million owners, with an average total playtime of 77 hours, drawing (say) 500W per gamer. This means that the game consumed, in its first six weeks on sale, between 385 GWh and 770 GWh of electricity. Only on the PC version: it is also available on Xbox and PlayStation. For comparison, over the same period, Hornsea One, the largest offshore wind farm in the world, can produce 1,200 GWh of electricity – if the wind is blowing just all the time.

What decisions could the developers have made to reduce this energy consumption? Could they have locked the game’s frame rate or limited the resolutions at which it can be played? Could they have even changed the whole visual style of the game? Such changes may seem drastic, but even a small change, which would reduce the game’s power consumption by a single percentage point, would almost certainly outweigh any conventional savings the studio could realize if it removed all the staff flights, switching to fully renewable energy. for heating its offices, and shipped its games in boxes.

There would also be more benefits than direct benefits. A self-imposed moratorium on increasingly compute-intensive games would extend the life of gaming hardware, reducing the emissions embedded in every console and graphics card sold. This would reduce development costs for everyone, freeing up the thousands of people who spend their working lives perfectly simulating horse testicles and model rocks and trees. And that would finally stop bitcoin fans from responding to every article I write about the energy-intensive nature of their hobby with a sarcastic “what about video games?” “. Help me win arguments on the Internet? I can’t do better than that.

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Carolyn M. Daniel