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Can game makers rise to meet the challenge of climate change?

Activists and experts talk about the UN Playing for the Planet Alliance, and what more needs to be done

Earlier this week, 21 game companies made various pledges to fight climate change as part of the UN Playing for the Planet Alliance.

Through planting trees, reducing plastic packaging and energy consumption, and including "green nudges" in game design, the alliance will see a 30 million tonne reduction in carbon emissions by 2030.

To provide some context, recent estimates put carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels at around 37.1 billion metric tonnes from last year alone -- a figure which has been steadily rising for years. To say these commitments are a drop in our increasingly polluted ocean would be an understatement, but it is also the first step of what both the alliance and climate activists hope will be many more.

As of March this year, every country in the world has signed the Paris Agreement, though the US backed out in 2017 under president Donald Trump. The agreement is a commitment to limit the increase in global temperatures, to limit the amount of greenhouse gases produced, and for richer countries to support poorer ones in fighting climate change.

Up until now, we've seen very little from game companies actively engaging with the existential threat presented by climate change. The Playing for the Planet Alliance has come together following a UN Environment report by Trista Patterson from GRID-Arendal, a centre in Norway that collaborates with the United Nations on environmental issues.

Playing for the Planet: How Video Games can Deliver for People and the Environment, provides seven recommendations the video game industry to help tackle climate change. These range from cutting e-waste to including a "green nudge" in every game, such as normalising eco-consciousness through in-game systems or messages. These could be as overt as promoting buy-back programmes for old hardware and tips on how to save power, or more subtle encouragement through gameplay goals and mechanics.

"With gaming poised to be the dominant and most far-reaching media for the emerging generation, its impact and potential can no longer be ignored - it's a platform with unrivalled potential," reads the report.

"We're not going to be allowed to guzzle all that power if we're going to be serious about saving the climate."

Hugo Bille, designer and activist

Something that is notably absent from both the report and alliance pledges, however, is any consideration around the impact of data centres as Google, Microsoft, and Sony move increasingly towards cloud gaming, or energy consumption of powerful hardware on both the consumer and development side. Additionally, there is very little mentioned about the environmental impact of extracting raw materials, manufacturing, or distributing hardware and other physical products.

Overwhelmingly the pledges amount to carbon offsets through tree planting or solar installations in developing countries, rather than actively reducing carbon footprint through adopting renewable energy sources or reducing power consumption.

In particular, Sony's pledge to include an optional, non-default low-power mode for the PlayStation 5 raises a few eyebrows, with climate change activist and game designer Hugo Billie describing it as "outrageous."

Speaking with, Bille conceded that the alliance pledges were a "fantastic first step" but raised further concerns around cloud gaming and data centres, adding that much of the responsibility lies with hardware companies to push emission reductions across the whole supply chain.

"If we're heading into a couple of decades of actual climate action here, the games industry needs to look to its own interests as well," said Bille. "We're not going to be allowed to guzzle all that power if we're going to be serious about saving the climate. From that perspective, streaming isn't necessarily going to be financially viable... The biggest question mark in all of climate policy or the whole climate system really, is how are humans going to react? Are we going to reduce emissions or are we just going to keep going? If we're just going to keep going, that's great for the streaming paradigm; it's pretty terrible for our children and grandchildren."

The environmental impact associated with hardware -- whether that's at home, in studios, or data centres -- is a leading concern among those looking at the games industry. Last year, researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory released a paper titled Green Gaming: Energy Efficiency without Performance Comprise, which found that there were many ways the power requirements of hardware could be reduced.

As the paper's principal investigator Evan Mills told us, energy use and the associated greenhouse-gas emissions are the key issue of concern here, with US gamers' power consumption equating to the carbon dioxide emissions from roughly 85 million cars.

"[Carbon offsets are] not a silver bullet, and the danger is that it can lead to complacency"

Niklas Hagelberg, UN Environment climate specialist

Mills noted that most of the focus is on gamers, rather than the gear they use, despite there being "opportunities in virtually every component" to improve energy efficiency. One notable example is how many hardware systems use large amounts of power even when not in gaming mode.

Nathaniel Mills is the Green Gaming project co-founder, and ultimately stopped gaming because of the large carbon footprint their research discovered. While he appreciated the potential positives of gamifying environmentalism through "green nudges," he criticised the over-reliance on carbon offsetting.

"Regarding carbon offsets, it seems there is a risk for those companies that simply buy offsets (like religious indulgences) to not change their behaviour should they only implement offsets," he said.

"I don't see any mention of these companies changing their game development strategy in order to reduce the computational workload of the games themselves, which is close to half the battle here. It would have been nice to hear that R&D is or will be underway in this area at the very least."

Carbon offsetting has attracted criticism in the past for being the bare minimum that a company can do, and not representing any real systemic change. Earlier this year, UN Environment climate specialist Niklas Hagelberg said: "UN Environment supports carbon offsets as a temporary measure leading up to 2030, and a tool for speeding up climate action. However, it is not a silver bullet, and the danger is that it can lead to complacency."

However, alliance member Green Man Gaming believes its approach to tree planting is more impactful, and does represent greater potential. The digital retailer has revealed a lifetime commitment to selling product bundles that will see a portion of revenue go towards planting trees. It's a tried and true tactic for raising money for charity, but CEO Paul Sulyok suggests it has wider implications than just handing over some cash.

"It's not about the end result, per se, of planting a tree in the ground," he said. "It's about influencing people and making people more aware about where we are, what we're doing, and how to fix it... And you don't do that just by signing a cheque as a company."

Fighting climate change is ultimately a battle of hearts and minds, and Sulyok says "awareness is half of what we're aiming to achieve here."

"The biggest weapon we have in our arsenal is the fact that we actively engage with 2.3 billion gamers a year, as an industry"

Paul Sulyok, Green Man Gaming CEO

"The biggest weapon we have in our arsenal is the fact that we actively engage with 2.3 billion gamers a year, as an industry," he said. "So we're touching probably one-in-three people globally in some way, shape, or form... The thing that we can do as an industry is to make people aware, we can educate people, we can put things in front of people that they otherwise wouldn't necessarily have thought about."

Outside of the alliance, other game companies are also contributing in small ways, like peripheral brands A4T and ABP, which removed all plastic from their packaging in January this year, removing around 60 tonnes of plastic from landfill by the end of 2019. Despite this move, other companies in the same space aren't engaging with similar initiatives.

"We know no one else is doing this in the [peripheral] industry," said Laura O'Donohoe, head of commercial at A4T and ABP. "It's a huge commitment for a business and huge timescale that goes into getting your factory to produce in a different way."

O'Donohoe added that it was "only the starting point for everyone in the industry" and called for greater collaboration in working to address the problems.

Playing for the Planet is not a catch-all solution, and contribution from companies both inside and outside the movement will be welcomed as it continues to grow. Considering both the flaws and potential of the alliance, report author Trista Patterson said the whole initiative was done on a "wing and a prayer, and less than a whisper of a budget," adding that it was "an absolute miracle" that it came together given budget and time constraints.

The report is an overview document meant to galvanise support, she explains, and was never anticipated to be comprehensive. It's intended to "exercise the muscle of collaboration," looking for immediate and easy gains that are in everyone's best interest first, before moving on to tackle more difficult issues.

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"I think there is sometimes reticence to take action because of a fear factor of not really knowing what is entailed if you commit yourself to something that you can't fulfil, and then having to walk back a promise, is very unpleasant for any company, and that is completely understandable," Patterson added.

Patterson hopes that through collaboration, and establishing methodology, the alliance can make it easier for future companies to make commitments and take confident steps without worrying about walking back on a promise, or breaching budget.

Addressing world leaders at the UN Climate Action Summit earlier this week, teenage activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Greta Thunberg criticised world leaders for talking about "money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth" while facing down "the beginning of a mass extinction."

When you consider that gaming giants like Activision Blizzard, Tencent, Electronic Arts, and Nintendo are notably absent from this discussion, it becomes impossible to ignore that no amount of "first steps" talk addresses the fact that current UN projections put us 11 years away from a climate catastrophe.

So while game companies have stepped forward and made commitments to the environment, overall they remain soft. Google Stadia, for example, has offered to produce a new sustainable development guide, and fund research into how "green nudges" can be incorporated into gameplay. Despite valid concerns around giant corporations having a hand in message crafting, there is also the obvious criticism that it's simply not enough from a company that is leading the charge on game streaming.

Even so, as Patterson notes, there is a "great unmet demand" from the game playing public for companies that are responsive to climate issues and -- at long last -- the industry is starting to rise and to meet it.

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Ivy Taylor avatar
Ivy Taylor: Ivy joined in 2017 having previously worked as a regional journalist, and a political campaigns manager before that. They are also one of the UK's foremost Sonic the Hedgehog apologists.
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