It’s a sad truth that escapist pursuits are not truly separate from real life, and some even have a nasty tendency to exacerbate real-life problems. And while gaming offers a reprieve from thinking about dooms both personal and global, it threatens to bring at least one of them—climate disaster—closer to reality.
What with plastic casing, mined-metal circuit boards, guzzled power, and e-waste, gaming has for decades been an industry unfriendly to the environment. Now, in line with more meta trends in tech, gaming’s technological underpinnings are becoming smaller and more invisible. Cloud gaming has arrived alongside digital consoles like the PlayStation 5 Digital Edition and Xbox Series S, where games are buttons on menu screens. You’re not going to see the equivalent of 700,000 Atari 2600 E.T. cartridges buried in the New Mexico desert.
But while many gamers will ditch the discs, experts say that less visible tech in no way equals less damage to the planet, and that the games industry as a whole is not on a path to reducing its carbon footprint. Right now, US gaming platforms represent 34 terawatt-hours a year in energy usage—more than the entire state of West Virginia—with associated carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to over 5 million cars. And it’s only going to get worse. “Total emissions are going up,” says Gary Cook, global climate campaigns director for Stand.Earth, an environmental nonprofit founded to challenge corporations’ climate practices. “There’s a real reckoning that needs to happen.”
Two features define next-gen consoles: digital services and big-daddy specs. You might pick up Microsoft’s $300 all-digital Xbox Series S and, downloading games off the cloud, live a life free of disc clutter. You might forgo a console entirely and sign up for Google Stadia, Xbox’s Game Pass Ultimate, or any number of smartphone-based cloud gaming services. Even if you do opt for a specced-out PlayStation 5, you’ll likely still be downloading very big video games from data centers in northern Virginia, Las Vegas, Chicago, and beyond.
In interviews with WIRED, Microsoft executives have described how the future of Xbox isn’t about taking away hardware altogether. Cloud gaming is additive. Microsoft wants to reach potential gamers where they are already, expanding its user base to everybody who might even passingly consider gaming. It envisions customers logging into Minecraft on their Galaxy S20, their Xbox Series S, and their PC, all contained within the Microsoft ecosystem. That’s a lot of hardware, and a lot of power.
“If people are going to choose to play games, we want to be as efficient as we possibly can in delivering that experience, either via a console or a data center in a streamed environment,” said Microsoft’s vice president of cloud gaming, Kareem Choudhry in a March interview with WIRED. “We’re working pretty hard on those issues, all within the envelope of the broader Microsoft carbon-neutral initiative.”
Microsoft has plans to be carbon-negative by 2030. But like Sony, which wants to achieve zero environmental footprint by 2050, Microsoft declined to answer WIRED’s specific questions about changes to its supply chain, console manufacturing techniques, and data centers to meet that goal. (Nintendo, which has not yet announced a next-gen console, has publicized some initiatives in recycling and nontoxic substances.) As the dual winds of big console performance and big demand for server-side computing meet, the gaming industry could be setting up for a worst-of-both-worlds situation.
“The worst-case scenario is still using relatively energy-intensive hardware on your side and then still using the cloud gaming platforms that have a lot going on the backend in terms of energy demand,” says Cook.
It’s no secret that consumer electronics are bad for the environment. Consoles comprise chips, circuit boards, fans, all wrapped up in plastic, all destined for a landfill when they’ve outworn their welcome. They require the use of conflict minerals like tin, tungsten, tantalum, and gold to manufacture. Historically, the mining of these minerals has led to human rights abuses, land degradation, chemical pollution, water contamination, and deforestation across countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa. Microsoft and Sony both vet their supply chains in pursuit of ethical sourcing, but Microsoft has managed significantly better transparency about where its so-called 3TG minerals come from.
The consoles and their components are generally manufactured in Chinese plants that lean hard on fossil fuel and coal energy. Millions of PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S/X units are already in production. (Bloomberg has reported that Sony hopes to produce 15 million PlayStation 5 units before March 2021. Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Jim Ryan told The Washington Post that the company plans to have more PlayStation 5s available at launch than it did for the PlayStation 4 launch in 2013.) A little counterintuitively, designing these new consoles’ increasingly tiny chips requires more energy. The hyper-controlled conditions in which these intricate chips are made, including air filtration and chemical treatments, guzzle huge amounts of electricity. Once everything is assembled, often by robots, there’s shipping, which Cook describes as “kind of invisible to the average consumer, but actually has a really big carbon footprint that we’re all a part of.” And finally, recycling. As specialty electronics, consoles are notoriously difficult to recycle. With parts soldered onto circuit boards, consumers can’t really upgrade them when their specs are out of vogue, like, say, when a new generation launches. So a lot of the time they end up in landfills, where their chemicals and plastics are introduced into the environment—the fate of single-use electronics.
Last generation’s PlayStation 4 and Xbox One used 137 and 112 watts, respectively, when running games. (PC gaming uses a tremendous amount of energy: globally, per year, the equivalent of 25 standard electric power plants.) The disc version of the PlayStation 5 has a maximum output of 350 watts, and Xbox Series X is at 315. (Real-world performance remains to be seen.) “We quadrupled the performance, but we did not quadruple the power,” Xbox’s head of gaming engineering, Liz Hamren, says about the new console. “We have a constant desire to drive down power consumption, but drive up performance.”
Gaming companies seem quite aware that these stats are abysmal. Sony has boasted of a new, optional “low-power mode” for the PlayStation 5. Jim Ryan has said that if “just 1 million users enable the feature, it would save equivalent to the average electricity use of 1,000 US homes.” And Hamren says the Xbox Series S and X will have a new, lower-power “connected standby” mode that “ratchets the power way down” when it’s not actively in use.
Consumers aren’t going to buy next-gen consoles that are less powerful than their predecessors. It’s a tension that retired Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory energy researcher Evan Mills says is at odds with necessary climate goals. In 2018, Mills gathered 26 gaming systems, including the PlayStation 4, PlayStation 4 Pro, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox One, and gauged their wattage with a digital power meter. With that data, his team authored a groundbreaking report on gaming systems’ carbon emissions, noting that increased performance, more gamers, and more time gaming have “given rise to a perception of unavoidable trade-off between gaming user experience and energy efficiency.” Advances in technology—like lowering frames per second per watt—have helped, but “have not translated into reductions in energy use at the macro level.”
What surprised Mills wasn’t that PCs and consoles were guzzling refrigerators’ worth of power, though. Mills says the more impending threat is cloud gaming.
Cloud gaming shuttles input signals from a mobile gamer’s couch to a far-away data center equipped with top-of-the-line CPUs and GPUs, where a new game state is calculated and transmitted back. Because much of the processing happens remotely, so too does the bulk of the energy use. (Some, of course, still happens locally.) In addition to energy-intensive hardware demands, data centers depend on substantial ventilation and air cooling.
“You can think of the data center as a factory: Electricity and water go in, and data and heat go out,” says Aaron Wemhoff, director of Villanova University’s Center for Energy-Smart Electronic Systems. “While adding IT equipment adds to electricity consumption, the focus on energy efficiency is to minimize the extra electricity required to make up for cooling systems and electrical power losses.”
Cloud gaming uses more energy per hour of gameplay than local gaming, which means data centers are taxed regardless of the console people play on. Microsoft, which runs its own Azure data centers, is pushing hard to convert its facilities to renewable energy. Wemhoff says that while he is seeing more data center operators express interest in moving in that direction, progress has been slow. “Industry members have told me there is little financial incentive to drive this change,” he says.
Cloud gaming isn’t quite mainstream yet; gaming only accounts for 7 percent of global network demand, according to researchers at Lancaster University in England in a 2020 study. And content downloads account for 95 percent of that gaming total. But with Microsoft’s Project xCloud, Amazon’s Luna, Sony’s PlayStation Now, Nvidia’s Geforce Now, and other, smaller cloud gaming services pushing console-free gaming, it seems as though this growing trend may have real repercussions on the environment. If even 30 percent of gamers adopt cloud gaming, by 2030 that will mean a 30 percent boost in gaming’s carbon emissions, Polygon reported in a recent story on cloud gaming’s environmental toll.
Despite these grim stats, the most prominent group promoting environmentally friendly gaming practices appears optimistic. Playing for the Planet is a UN Environment Programme-facilitated alliance comprising top gaming companies like Microsoft, Sony, and Google (but not Nintendo). The organization said in a statement to WIRED that while increasing trends in use, graphics, and energy intensity contribute to higher network loads, cloud gaming is an opportunity to promote renewable energy. “There’s also systemic efforts to be considered, because as large and visible companies commit and invest in renewables at broad scale, low-carbon power becomes more accessible to everyone,” the organization said.
Playing for the Planet focuses a lot on consumers—educating them, getting them hyped about environmentalism, helping them modulate device settings, commissioning games about trees. They want to encourage players to protect nature and biodiversity, asking, "What if video games could also help us tackle the biggest environmental challenges of our time?"
Stand.Earth’s Cook says these companies need to stop passing the buck. Infrastructure needs to be the focus. Recyclable materials. Renewable energy. “Otherwise,” he says, “you're increasing emissions at a time where we’re in the last 10 years [before it's too late] on climate change. We must halve emissions by 2030, full stop. And is gaming taking us in the right direction, or is it the exact opposite?”