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The Environmental Impact of Digital Games // HeavyEyed

The Environmental Impact of Digital Games // HeavyEyed


So, in the last video I made about the environmental
impact of buying games, I talked about the production of plastics, paper inserts and
discs, and how they’re leaving a permanent mark on the planet by sheer existence. Production
cycles of any physical media are brutal and the games industry is no exception, in fact
up until a few years ago, a case could have been made that they were doing the most damage
out of all forms of entertainment since streaming for movies, tv and music has been widely available
for a lot longer. Even digital ownership of those have a lower barrier of entry since
the download size for games are drastically higher than those of any other medium. As
technology has progressed, much to the dismay of internet service provider monopolies, internet
speeds have gotten faster and more readily available across the world, meaning the digital
distribution of games has become a lot more prominent. So you would assume this would
be a great win in the fight against climate change, right? Well, no. Some say that digital
distribution is arguably worse than physical distribution and that’s what I want to look
at today, let’s go over the different ways downloading or, now that google stadia is
for some reason a thing, streaming is negatively impacting our environment because, well, I’m
not finished ruining video games for myself and everyone around me. Welcome back to the
Ethics of Buying Games. I want to put another big asterisk on this
video like I did last time, I don’t think anyone should feel guilty or stop buying games
in any capacity, hell, I bought and downloaded games just to use as footage in this video.
Understanding what exactly that means as a consumer is important so that necessary changes
can be made by those in power. The more people that can fight for change, the more power
we have to do so. Digital distribution of games isn’t exactly
a new thing to the industry, in fact, games have been available online since before the
market crashed in 1983. A service known as GameLine was available on the Atari 2600,
which allowed customers to hook their console up to their phone line, with a specialized
cartridge and rent games for a few days at a time. Internet was not easily accessible
back in the early 1980s however so obviously physical game copies dominated the era. The
90s played around with internet connectivity and digital distribution but since home internet
connections didn’t become a mainstay until around 2001 they didn’t gain much ground.
There are a few notable exceptions like GameSpy and battle.net which launched with Quake 3D
and Diablo respectively, providing online matchmaking servers, but they didn’t become
distribution platforms until much later. All of this is to say, that while online purchasing
and downloading has always been a part of the industry, it didn’t become integral
until the 2000s.The release of the Xbox 360 in 2005 along with their Xbox Live Arcade
service, opened the floodgates to online purchasing. While Valve released Steam as a client in
2003, it wasn’t the central focus of gaming platforms, back then games still needed to
be installed through CDs using their unique keys, and it was more of a platform to just
buy Valve games, not the behemoth storefront we know it as today. Over the last 15 years
or so, technology has evolved so rapidly and the need to always be online, always be updating
and always be purchasing games, or in-game items has become so central to the medium
that it’s almost impossible to imagine the industry without it, for better or worse.
Every console comes with its own digital storefront, and the war for the PC launcher of choice
has become an exhausting battleground. This increased reliability has meant that companies
are purchasing more and more server space to store their data on. Now you’d think more server space for distributing
games, hosting online games and maintaining cloud saves across multiple consoles and even
platforms would be a good thing, and in some ways it is, it’s made life incredibly convenient,
if by some unfortunate happenstance your console or computer is stolen, your purchases are
not lost with it, instead they are tied to accounts to be recovered fairly easily. But
at what cost? On the surface, it’s easy to make the case
that physical games are more detrimental to the environment than digital, there is a tangible
detriment happening to the Earth through the use of non-renewable plastics in packaging
and even emissions used with transporting goods from manufacturing plants to retail
stores to houses. Although they deal in high yet fairly obscured numbers, it’s still
easy to quantify. Digital is a lot harder to get to grips with, the cost of non-renewable
energy to keep data centers, our home entertainment systems and everything in between running,
is a silent killer and a lot of the reason people are so easily shielded from the destructive
nature it’s having on our environment as a whole. So, let’s look at some numbers. In a paper
written by Kieran Mayers and colleagues titled the Carbon Footprint of Games Distribution,
a game of around 8.8 GB has a far more negative impact on the environment in digital form
than its physical counterpart. Emitting around 27kgs of carbon as opposed to the 20kgs of
its retail contemporary, for context, around 1.6kgs of CO2 is emitted per half hour showing
of Netflix, or in more tangible terms, the average passenger car emits around .1kg of
carbon per kilometer. 9GBs is almost nothing in 2019 in terms of data used, this years
annual installment of Call of Duty, annoyingly titled Modern Warfare, is around 170GB with
the campaign, multiplayer and all post-launch content included, that is a fair chunk bigger
than 9GB turning that 27kgs of carbon into around 510kgs per download which is not good.
These enormous sizes are becoming more and more the norm. Rockstars PC port of Red Dead
Redemption 2’s file size clocks in at around 150GB. IO Interactives Hitman 2 clocks in
at just over 100GBs, although you can download whatever mission you wish, which is nice,
but despite that, all of these games aren’t just outliers, they are becoming more and
more the default as games get increasingly complex worlds, higher fidelity textures and
more localized voice acting. It’s a hard line to walk because all of these things are
great, more localization means more accessibility worldwide, having deep and interesting worlds
to explore is something consumers are always begging for and well, who doesn’t love just
sitting and looking at immaculately detailed environments. It is worth noting that, although
these numbers take into account, electricity used by the downloader, power from the data
center and power used to create the digital file, they are all based on estimations and
filling in some gaps, so they’re not concrete just a rough estimation written in 2014 based
on internet speeds back then, so power consumption today may be lower. And while modern consoles
can utilize a low-power mode while downloading games, they are still in use and actively
consuming energy to get you your games digitally. Basically, take these numbers with a slight
grain of salt and use them to put things into perspective rather than the hard data, because
it’s simply impossible to get things exact when there are too many changing variables. On top of that however, with games as a service
becoming a bigger push, that is, games that are designed to last as long as developers
wish through constant updates, seasons, cosmetics, etc, the need to constantly download is ever
growing. Something I am extremely guilty of myself is playing these kinds of games for
a couple of weeks, uninstalling them when I’ve lost interest and re-downloading them
if an update piqued my curiosity. It’s a hard line to tow and shockingly easy to justify
when you have fast download speeds and can get Apex Legends in a matter of minutes to
see what’s changed. But all of this downloading, and re-downloading is, well, terrible for
the environment. This uses up immense amounts of power resulting in way too many emissions
being expelled into the air. Cloud-Based gaming was touted as the best way to curb these carbon
emissions since it cuts out a lot of the middle pieces of the whole process, saving on download
times, and relying on one data center rather than multiple to host and distribute a single
file. Matthew Smith from Digital Trends says in his article about the impact of the Stadia
that, despite being one of the biggest pushers for renewable energy among their mega corporate
tech peers, the stadia takes advantage of being centered in Portland, Oregan which is
a forerunner of renewable energy. The problem with this proposal is simple, the demand of
the market. This is not just an issue Google needs to face alone, too, market demand for
video games, especially games-as-a-service is ever growing, forcing more and more companies
to expand, despite even their best efforts to go, or remain, green. The Stadia, like Netflix did for movies and
TV shows, aims to increase the accessibility and ease at which people play games, which,
again, on paper sounds amazing, a wider audience of games means the market can shift into different
and more interesting experiences as a whole, but that conversation is for another day.
Smith writes that video streaming is currently around 50 percent of all internet traffic,
and projected to increase to around 80 percent by 2021. With a generous headcount of around
2 billion gamers worldwide, the number of people streaming games with this new system
could be incredibly high. This increased demand for games instantly will mean the higher need
for more data centers worldwide, putting around 20 percent of the world’s energy consumption
on data centers alone by 2015. It’s not all doom and gloom however, companies
at the top are making strides towards a cleaner and greener industry. According to the UN
Environment Program posted on the 23rd of September this year, to enact a better power
saver mode to offset around 29 million tons of CO2 by 2030 as well as report their emissions
to help educate the greater gaming community. Microsoft are expanding their carbon neutral
plan detailed in 2012 and engaging players through initiatives like their Minecraft “Build
a Better World” one. Twitch are teaming up with Niantic to help distribute the message
to their audience about sustainable responsibility. Among many other companies like Supercell,
Ubisoft and Green Man Gaming all taking steps forward in different ways, although other
major companies like Nintendo are missing from the list of UN environment program. All of this does seem like surface level engagement
to save face, and it kind of is, corporate responsibility is pretty fickle and minimal
so as to not impact the bottom line as much as possible, it’s pivoting the issue into
the hands of the consumer, and while companies can and should be doing more, this passing
the buck may be a good thing. If the gaming community at large can become more aware of
their impact, maybe we can lobby at the root of the problem of this carbon footprint the
gaming industry has on our planet. Non-renewables. Ultimately, all of this off-setting, sidestepping
and skirting around the issue can be greatly alleviated if we start using renewable energy
rather than fossil fuels.

Comments (20)

  1. I'm just glad that CEX exists in the UK, this prevents people from just dumping tons of disks in landfill, and they get recycled again.

  2. why is YouTube recommending romantic fireplace videos now?
    <insert careless whispers>

  3. Very important video and good work on making another well researched and documented video but man it just sucks knowing how much of a carbon footprint I've created just from enjoying my favorite hobby. It's important to know but it's saddening.

  4. 50% of why I clicked so fast was because I saw Sea of Thieves when I hovered my mouse over the thumbnail

  5. Mitch, you're killing it with this series. Great job!

  6. Great video! We definiately need to bring more awareness to how digital media is harming the planet.

  7. Never knew of carbon footprints with digital downloads. Now I feel slightly bad, but I guess that's my fault when downloading big games on a limited space.
    Very thoughtful, Mitch. I guess consoles like Stadia is a way of staving off negative environmental impacts, though it clearly isn't there yet.

  8. Pretty crazy stuff, didn't expect to hear about power consumption. I guess the very act of me watching this video/typing a comment isn't helping things. It's all carbon >_>

  9. I love these videos. Both of them really make me consider what my choices of entertainment are worth. I’m in the middle of moving house and so far I have three large ottomans and six large tray like boxes that are packed with DVD’s, VCR’s and games. I have seriously asked myself, multiple times, what it is worth to own all of these physical copies of games and movies, when on average I most regularly use about twenty percent of my collection. It really helps me to put it into a greater perspective, which I am so grateful for, but it also scares me to think that the digital market can have an even greater impact on the environment than the production and transportation of physical games.

    I know you said that we shouldn’t feel guilty or stop playing games as a result of this video, but I think I’ll be keeping a tighter grip on my wallet all the same.

    Thanks again for your video and I hope you have a great day.

  10. I was like "baba is you is 2 gb??" until I noticed that you're using the notation where you don't write the 0 before the period.

  11. so the 15-GB digitally downloaded Smash Bros Ultimate is doing more harm than if I've bought it physically D:
    oh no

  12. game as a service is not a demand, is a imposition from the publishers part to milk the same product for longer

  13. The problem with the the physical Carbon Emissions measurements is that it doesn't take into account the carbon emissions of the planes, trucks and whatever other vehicles are used to deliver the physical copies to stores and homes.

  14. it’s a nice thing to decrease personal consumption where you can, however I think what gets left out is that so much of internet traffic is essentially unwanted advertising. if we really wanted to reduce consumption in this area without sacrificing personal consumption advertising is the low hanging fruit given that people already dislike it

  15. This is really fantastic work as always man. Such an interesting angle to look at it from, considering I always just assumed physical would have a greater impact on the environment.

  16. HAPPY BIRTHDAY MITCH!

  17. Happy birthday mitch

  18. I think it's worth mentioning that, if you're trying to compare physical vs digital, these days if you're buying a physical disc, usually what you're actually doing is buying a drm key and you have to download the entire game to your system regardless. There are some exceptions (switch games are actually physically on the cartridge, for example) but increasingly physical copies literally aren't physical copies anymore.

  19. So basically all games are bad for the environment, and caring about it at all, like most climate activism, is an exercise in futility that serves only to distract from actual meaningful things you could devote your time to
    Glad we cleared that up

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