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Four ways game developers can help save the planet

At GDC Summer, the Playing for the Planet Alliance offered clear steps the industry can take to tackle the climate crisis

"Can you make your handprint on the planet bigger than your footprint."

This question was at the very core of what the Playing for the Planet Alliance set out to achieve when it launched in September 2019. It was also the question that GRID-Arendal economist Trista Patterson emphasised in a talk at GDC Summer last week, which laid out clear options for developers interested in using their influence to help tackle the climate crisis.

Patterson, who helped establish Playing for the Planet through her work with the United Nations, said that the Alliance now has 24 members, including Sony, Microsoft, Google, Ubisoft, Supercell and Rovio. Together, they have a reach of around 970 million gamers across various products and communities.

"The focus has been on doing things more together than we could do as individuals," Patterson said. "And the commitments have been focused on tangible, measurable, time-based commitments in key impact areas."

Specifically, the Alliance has encouraged its members to target four main areas: Emissions, Reforestation, Plastic Reductions, and Green Energy. While all of its member companies support these goals at the executive level, Patterson made it clear that this wasn't necessary for more people to commit to making a difference.

"This is a leadership opportunity for people at all levels of a company," she added. "Sometimes it involves new roles that haven't existed in the past"

Use the Carbon Calculator

Every single games business leaves a carbon footprint, but it can be difficult to define exactly how large that is -- especially for smaller companies with fewer resources to devote to the issue.

One of the first projects at Playing for the Planet has been a "Life Cycle Assessment Energy and Emissions Project," which will "establish a common methodology" that everyone in the industry can use to assess their impact on the environment.

"This is a leadership opportunity for people at all levels of a company"

Trista Patterson

"Finding a common metric and a common way of communicating can help us set baselines and goals, which will help us ratchet down the impact of emissions over time," Patterson added.

This will take the form of a web-based "carbon calculator." Supercell commissioned the sustainability firm South Pole to create the tool using its own data, and the Playing for the Planet Alliance will make it available to all of its members -- an ethic of sharing that is evident in everything the organisation does.

"This really reduces the cost of entry for many companies that don't have that kind of access to do their own studies," Patterson added.

Brainstorm ideas through game jams

One of the Alliance's founding members is Sybo, the Danish studio behind the mobile blockbuster Subway Surfers. Mathias Gredal Nørvig, Sybo's CEO, delivered the GDC Summer talk alongside Patterson, and he discussed one of the first initiatives the group's members embarked on after its foundation: the Green Mobile Game Jam.

"The idea was to prove the point," he said. "Let's get these 11 wonderful participants onboard, reaching 250 million combined monthly active users... Huge titles, that all have executives supporting the initiative."

The participants were Sybo, Pixelberry, Rovio, Future Games of London, Playdemic, Wildworks, Space Ape, Creative Mobile, Fingersoft, Mag Interactive, and GameDuell. They were each given a brief to guide their thinking, alongside nine online "masterclasses" that representatives could attend to gain a better understanding of the science behind key subject areas.

"If you're interested in the environmental area, you have a very valuable talent and the world needs you"

Trista Patterson

"It meant that people went into the game jam with a lot of knowledge, but also a lot of shared language, a lot of shared ideas for how games could change," Nørvig continued.

The game jam concluded in May, and the resulting ideas are now being implemented in the various companies' products. Playdemic, for example, will offer Golf Clash players in-game currency for watching videos on climate change and related issues. Space Ape collaborated with the citizen science group REN21 to stage an event in Transformers: Earth War that made energy efficiency central to its gameplay.

There is abundant potential for ideas related to sustainability, Nørvig said, but he emphasised that they should be "concrete and actionable, but also inspiring and aspirational for others to follow suit."

Think about your own skills differently

While the Playing for the Planet Alliance ultimately wants to attract more members, Patterson was clear that anyone can and should use their own initiative to push for change.

She mentioned the game developer Johan Gjestland as an example of someone not officially part of the Alliance, who nevertheless had a major impact. Gjestland started applying a "Nature" tag to products on Steam with ecological themes, and ultimately approached Valve to ask if that could become an official process -- that led to a themed Steam Sale to coincide with World Environment Day.

"It created millions of views per day," Patterson added. "Also, now there is a hashtag that allows more individuals to find that content in the future."

"If you are given the choice between any two options, go the right way"

Mathias Gredal Nørvig

Patterson also appealed to those in the audience who are currently out of work, asking them to consider what initiative they can take when thinking about how to apply their skills.

"It seems intimidating to enter into the job market at a time when things have taken such a downturn," she said. "But it is possible to think about diversification in the job market, and the ways that your skills can be useful.

"If you're interested in the environmental area, you have a very valuable talent and the world needs you; whether that's working on augmented reality to envision landscape restoration scenarios, or working on a capture game to allow individuals in their spare time to identify illegal fishing or logging."

Add "green" features to your games

Every member of the Playing for the Planet Alliance has live games, and Nørvig asked those in the audience with similar products -- or with ideas still in development -- to consider green angles for the various features.

"Everything we do should inspire others," he said. "It needs to be shareable, it needs to be repeatable, it needs to be quantifiable and concrete.

"We don't want to take away any of the fun, any of the engagement, any of the long-term monetisation potential, or any of the other things that make up a good game.

"What we really hope for is, if you are given the choice between two options, and they are equally fun for the player, choose the one that is green... If you are given the choice between any two options, go the right way."

Nørvig added: "This is the time to act... It is a relatively young alliance, and we have ambitions that the things we have achieved in the first 12 months can be even bigger in the next 12 months.

"It's basically doing anything. We don't, in the Alliance, care about who does the best or the most. We encourage everyone to do what they can, wherever they are as a company."

Matthew Handrahan avatar
Matthew Handrahan: Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.
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