We Have To Talk About How Gaming Is Hurting Our Planet-Earth Day, 2023
by Community Gaming in Web3 · 2023-04-22

The Ecological Effects of the Gaming Industry & What Gamers Can Do to Help - Earth Day, 2023

That’s right gamers- it’s Earth Day! And you know what that means!

Sustainability posts?

Why, yes. Sustainability posts. But the harsh reality is, it needs to be more than just that.

When we were originally confronted with generating some ideas for an Earth Day post, we jumped at the chance. After all, saving the earth is arguably the right thing to do, is it not? Especially when the alternative is a certain “game over” for humanity. And so, the idea was floated to compile a list of tips that the everyday gamer could do to help curb the cons of the gaming industry’s carbon footprint.

Unfortunately, it may not be that simple.

The truth is, the options we have in regard to mitigating the ecological effects of gaming are far from perfect solutions. We could spend entire months accumulating research about the pros and cons of each of these suggestions, but alas, our marketing overlords here at CG only gave me a couple of days to write this article. Thankfully, we acknowledge sustainability is a rich subject that warrants discussion not just during Earth Day season, but year-round as well. While we want to deliver some digestible tips on how we can all collectively take responsibility for the impacts our choices as consumers have, this article barely scratches the surface of things to consider.

With this in mind, we are going to take today to dip our toes into the wild frontier of sustainability efforts in gaming, but our intent is to spend some time deep diving each of these suggestions in the coming months in more detail. As previously stated, these solutions are not flawless, and each comes with its own environmental implications. That being said, anything that can be potentially helpful in the long run is worth a shot, even if we are still working towards optimizing the steps involved.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

Gaming’s Sustainability Scene At A Glance

Since its inception in the late 1970s, the gaming industry has flourished, generating an estimated $240 billion in revenue worldwide as of 2021 according to Statista. From neon-lit nights out at your local arcade to cozy days in bed on your favorite handheld, video games have truly revolutionized the ways in which we consume media. But with great growth comes great responsibility, and the gaming world’s continued demand for electronics has an enormous ecological impact. As the stress on our power grids and size of our landfills continue to grow in correlation with our consumption, the feeling that your favorite pastime is doing harm to the real world around you can easily sully what should have been a relaxing night at home immersing yourself in a digital one.

Fear not gamers, as all hope is not lost! Many industry giants have started to rally together to address these concerns head-on with eco-friendly initiatives. Pledges to achieve carbon neutrality made by Microsoft and Sony have set the stage for accountability among other leading companies in the business. Here at Community Gaming, our leadership works closely with the Play2Learn foundation, who have long since surpassed their original pledge goals for carbon offsetting in the blockchain space. As we continue to work together to pave the path to progress, there is still plenty of work that needs to be done. Thankfully, there are some simple things that you can do to help. So for Earth Day 2023, the folks here at Community Gaming wanna lend a helping hand by giving some suggestions on how you can help minimize the environmental effects of gaming.

Tip #1: Power Down

As the age of technology continues to advance, so does our energy consumption, and gaming’s direct contribution to that consumption is no secret. Despite the best efforts of console developers to make advances in the energy efficiency of their products, the industry’s stress on the power grid has only grown at an exponential rate over the years. A news article from 2022 published by conservation news media outlet Mongabay reported 34 terawatt-hours of usage annually from consoles in the US alone, citing several additional studies and publications on the subject.

While these are rough estimates, with tons of speculation surrounding the accuracy of modern-day field-metering methods, it is worth mentioning that the numbers reported don’t even account for gaming’s additional contributions outside of consoles, such as PCs, mobile devices, and servers used in hosting online play.

Yep, that’s a lotta usage! So how can we help? We recommend these quick tips the everyday gamer can do at home to minimize their energy usage:

  • Ensure the energy-saving settings of your devices are active. Nearly all modern electronic devices have some sort of power-saving feature that reduces overall energy consumption when the devices are idling or not experiencing heavy use. The setup involved to activate these settings can vary, so be sure to check with your device’s manual or the manufacturer’s website for more information.
  • Use automated methods for shutdown. Turning the device off entirely when it is not in use can be a no-brainer, but living in a world where we can access the power of the internet quite literally from our pockets is a breeding ground for distraction. Needless to say, we all forget to turn our devices off sometimes. Many consoles and devices also have options for automatic shutdowns as well, powering off the device completely after a certain point. In addition to ensuring these settings are enabled, the average consumer can go even further by investing in smart plugs and power strips for their homes. There are several of these products on the market, many of which integrate directly with smart home assistants like Amazon Alexa or Google Home, and even offer methods for remote shutdown.
  • Stay conscious of the Energy Star ratings of your devices. The Energy Star rating system is based on a set of criteria as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the US. Stay mindful of where all of your devices sit on this scale, and prioritize looking for higher-rated options if available. For more information on how Energy Star ratings work, visit the official Energy Star website.

Tip #2: Go Digital

We’ve seen the format in which completed games are delivered to us evolve quite extensively over the years. Gone are the days of having to begrudgingly blow the dust off of a cartridge just to get a game to load up (unless of course, you’re a retro gaming enthusiast like myself), and disc formats have grown to dominate the market of physical sales. But as the technology behind physical games has developed, so has the rise in digital downloads. An article published earlier this year by Gamebyte states that nearly 90% of game purchases were digital downloads in 2022, citing a news report from BBC. That’s a lot of downloads!

So what does this mean for the future of physical copies of games? And what are the environmental impacts associated with the switch to digital format? While we continue to ponder these questions, they are in fact nothing new to the gaming space, and truthfully the industry has been asking itself this for years now. With the growing concern surrounding the amount of E-waste (ie: landfill waste produced by electronics specifically) being recorded annually on a global scale compounded against the carbon footprint of the manufacturing of physical products, going digital should be a no-brainer, right?

Annual amount of e-waste produced as speculated by a 2019 UN Report.Well, some people aren’t so sure.

In 2014, a research paper published by Mayers and colleagues aimed to challenge this logic by deep diving the process of physical game manufacturing and comparing the carbon emissions generated by the creation, distribution, and consumption of games in comparison with that of digital downloads.

The results left gaming publications stunned.

The study revealed that, while the download of games 8.8GB in size and under were arguably the more environmentally friendly option, the digital acquisition of larger games had more severe implications, reporting that the footprint for digital downloads of the 8.8GB sized games varied from 21.9-27.5 kg CO2-eq, whereas emissions stayed at around 20.8 kg CO2-eq for their physical counterparts. The study went on to speculate that the margin between the two scenarios only widened as game sizes grew.

These results have permeated the space and caused quite a bit of confusion amongst consumers, though progress in ecological efforts has proven to mitigate these concerns over time. Within a year after its publication, an article by Polygon challenged the broader reality of the study’s findings, drawing attention to the fact that the research was primarily conducted using the 2007 model of the PlayStation 3 and had cited internet energy data that dated back to 2010. Polygon’s article goes on to point out that Sony has continued to make generous strides in the energy efficiency of its products, citing that even the 2009 redesign of the PS3 console cut the console’s energy consumption in idle mode by half.

Needless to say, the argument of digital versus physical when it comes to game copies is an extensive rabbit hole with a near-endless amount of factors and moving parts to make observations of. Though even as consoles themselves increase in power and therefore increase in energy consumption, the industry’s continued efforts to improve performance alongside efficiency is worth considering. As industry leaders collectively move towards the shared goal of carbon neutrality via efforts such as the use of renewable energy sources for data centers, the argument to go digital only becomes stronger, even though progress made within the transition has been anything but linear.

Still, digitizing your entire game library certainly does not come without its concerns, and it can be difficult for “elder gamers” like myself to part ways with our attachment to physical media. Even worse, if you are one who operates under a completionist’s mindset when gaming in general, chances are you are probably prone to being a collector as well.

Regardless, choosing digital distribution over obtaining physical copies whenever possible seems to be the play, as at the end of the day our beloved hardware copies will not last forever. Anyone in the retro gaming collector’s market is already well aware of the growing issue of disc rot in CD formats released in the Y2K era, and if you fancy yourself a connoisseur of early N64 games, then you already know the woes of having to replace the internal lithium batteries of your cartridges in order to reinstate the game’s ability to save data. Even though developments in game manufacturing have remedied some of these concerns, everything ultimately has a life span worth considering, including the hard drive your digital copies are saved on. It all routes back to being more mindful of your consumption as a whole.

So, we urge you to consider going digital with your collection whenever possible, and if you’re an avid collector like me, consider only resorting to the purchase of physical copies from your absolute favorite game franchises. Because let’s face it, having a hard copy of that game you only played once before deciding you would never play it again is likely not going to bring you much personal value in the long run as it continues to collect dust on your shelf.

Tip #3: Recycle, Reduce, Refurbish

We know all too well that all good things must come to an end, and the lifespan of your gaming consoles are no exception. Efforts by electronics companies to revolutionize the power our devices have and the strides made in their energy efficiency overall have ultimately done little to minimize concerns surrounding the materials used to make them in the first place, with gaming devices in particular being quite difficult to recycle. As a result, we are left with many devices ending up in landfills, with the Global E-Waste Monitor reporting that successful e-waste collection only accounted for 15% of e-waste produced in North America alone in 2017, while the UN reported in 2019 that 50 million tons of e-waste is produced globally, with only 20% being formally recycled worldwide.

Needless to say, we’ve got some work to do when it comes to keeping our discarded electronics out of landfills, and for more than one reason. Another article published by Mongabay in 2022 provided valuable insights from sustainability enthusiast Dr. Benjamin Abraham, CEO of AfterClimate Solutions, a sustainability consulting company in Australia geared towards the gaming space. Abraham had reported finding the chemical composition of the central processing unit of the PS4 to have 54 different elements, of which several toxic heavy metals were included, contributing to rising concern surrounding the risks discarded electronics pose to wildlife.

Beyond this, proper e-waste collection efforts also present major potential for reclaiming some of the materials used to produce our devices. While extraction and purification methods come with their own impact and carbon footprint, the effects the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic had on the supply chain for electronics left the entire world facing the reality of what scarcity in materials really means for our society. As consumption continues to rise in tandem with waste production, it’s fair to say that any processes that can help humanity optimize our use of existing materials is worth consideration, especially if that helps us minimize the amount of things taking up space in our landfills that could potentially do further harm.

All of this considered, there is an obvious need for everyday consumers to take matters into their own hands and do their part, including gamers. Should that dreaded day finally arrive where your gaming device powers on no more and repair is not an option, do not cast your console into the toxic abyss that is your local garbage facility! Instead, explore options for recycling or safe disposal as sanctioned by your device’s manufacturers. We’ve done some of the leg work for you and compiled a list of recycling programs from industry leaders below:

Microsoft’s End-of-Life Global Program Finder

Sony’s Take Back Recycling Program Powered by ERI

Nintendo Take Back Program Information

Nvidia Product Recycling Information

Best Buy Electronics Recycling

In Conclusion

The path to carbon neutrality is a long one, and truth be told we are still trying to collectively figure out the best means of transportation to that road’s end. We hope to continue deep-diving the subject of gaming’s impact on our planet with our community in the coming months so the conversation surrounding sustainability can carry on year-round.

Happy Earth Day, from all of us at Community Gaming!

By Kianna Busby

Citations

Clement, J. “Video Game Industry-Statistics & Facts.” Statista, 17 Nov. 2022, https://www.statista.com/topics/868/video-games/#topicOverview

Asher, Claire. “Playing Dangerously: The Environmental Impact of Video Gaming Consoles.” Mongabay Environmental News, 27 Oct. 2022, https://news.mongabay.com/2022/10/playing-dangerously-the-environmental-impact-of-video-gaming-consoles/

Breslin, Richard. “90% Of Video Game Sales in 2022 Were Digital.” GameByte, 11 Jan. 2023, https://www.gamebyte.com/90-of-video-game-sales-in-2022-were-digital/

Stanley, Steve. “Digital or Physical? the Case for the Environmental Impact of Our Gaming.” Polygon, 9 July 2015, https://www.polygon.com/2015/7/9/8921205/digital-or-physical-the-case-for-the-environmental-impact-of-our

Mayers, Kieren, et al. “The Carbon Footprint of Games Distribution-Wiley Online Library.” Wiley Online Library, 1 Sept. 2014, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jiec.12181

“UN Report: Time to Seize Opportunity, Tackle Challenge of e-Waste.” UN Environment Programme, 24 Jan. 2019, https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/press-release/un-report-time-seize-opportunity-tackle-challenge-e-waste

“Global E-Waste Monitor: Northern America.” Global E-Waste Statistics Partnership, 2019, https://globalewaste.org/statistics/region/northern-america/2019/