Some 30 years ago, graphics processing units (GPUs) were invented to support the increasingly sophisticated graphics of computer games. Today, gaming still accounts for the majority of GPU usage, ahead of AI and crypto mining. But these specialized semiconductor chips are incredibly energy-hungry because of the vast amounts of computation they carry out. So, when you boot up your console or your souped-up gaming PC, it might be sucking up more electricity than you had imagined.

And that’s not it. Manufacturing these chips requires vast amounts of electricity—the world’s leading chip manufacturing company, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, accounts for more than 6% of Taiwan’s energy consumption. Mining the minerals required for these chips, manufacturing the other components, and transporting them around a complex global supply chain all adds up. A study by researchers at the University of Cambridge found that 89 kg (196 lbs) of carbon are emitted with the manufacture and transport of each PlayStation 4—that’s equivalent to the emissions from a gas car driving 228 miles. As of June 2022, more than 117 million PlayStation 4s have been sold since they were released in 2013.

Last year there were an estimated 3.3 billion video game players around the world, according to market research firm Newzoo. Even if the contribution of each individual gamer is small—a couple hundred grams of CO2 per hour of play on average, plus emissions from device manufacturing—the total emissions from the gaming industry is significant. In 2019, gaming generated 24 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide in the U.S. alone—equivalent to the annual emissions from over 5 million cars—according to an estimate produced by researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

What can gaming companies do to reduce this figure? On the manufacturing side, console makers face the same challenges as all manufacturers do with complex global supply chains: wrangling their suppliers and trying to press them to take steps toward sustainability, says Ben Abraham, who researches the environmental impact of the games industry. A review of 36 of the largest gaming companies in the world carried out by AfterClimate, a consultancy founded by Abrahams, found that 18 of the companies had disclosed some level of engagement with their suppliers, and that the largest of the companies tended to have taken the most significant steps.

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On the power usage side, both game designers and console manufacturers can take steps to make gaming less electricity-intensive. Here, there’s no silver bullet, says Abraham. Rather, efficiency will be a product of countless tweaks.

For example, developers at Epic Games made a number of changes to the popular multiplayer game Fortnite, such as reducing the resolution and frame rate of the game’s waiting lobby when a user had been inactive for a given amount of time. Epic Games estimates that these changes, which are imperceptible to gamers, will reduce electricity consumption from all Fortnite players combined by 200 MWh per day—roughly the same amount of power generated by seven wind turbines in a day.

Last year, Microsoft rolled out energy saving features for the Xbox that reduce the electricity consumed by the console by 95% when not in use. “Over time, this can have real impact on the ways in which consumers experience their devices through their power bills,” says Trista Patterson, director of sustainability for Xbox.

However, these efficiencies are fighting against a trend of increasingly higher performing consoles and PCs. So, even if these devices are made more efficient, total power consumption is still increasing, warns Abraham. And the most significant driver of carbon emissions from a game’s electricity usage is how clean the grid is—gamers in Vermont, which generated 99.6% of its electricity from renewable sources in 2022, will have a smaller carbon footprint than gamers in Mississippi, which generated 2.7% of its electricity renewably.

The wide reach of video games, however, means they can play another role in the transition to net zero, by raising awareness. In 2022, Nordic tech retailer Elkjøp partnered with Minecraft to launch a scheme in which players would earn in-game currency for recycling their e-waste. “Every generation nowadays can be found in games, so we can reach a very broad spectrum of people,” says Lisa Pak, project lead at Playing for the Planet, an initiative founded by the United Nations Environment Programme. “Games are played in many places across the world, so people from all over the world can be reached. But also the opportunity to engage through games is limitless.”

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Ultimately, though, headlines about gaming being an “environmental nightmare” should be taken with a grain of salt—and individuals worried about their personal carbon impact can turn to much more effective ways to tackle that than giving up gaming, such as taking fewer flights. That’s because, spending an hour gaming via the cloud on a PlayStation 4 with a large, electricity-hungry television—one of the most carbon-intensive ways to play video games—generates roughly 360 grams of carbon dioxide, according to an estimate by Seaver Wang, co-director of the climate and energy team at the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research center.

As Wang points out, if you spent your Saturday indoors, gaming for 10 hours in the least environmentally-friendly way possible, you’d have generated 3.6 kilograms of carbon dioxide. In comparison, if you drove an efficient hybrid car one hour to a trailhead, went for a hike, and then drove home again, you’d have generated 23 kilograms of carbon dioxide—six times more than if you’d spent the day gaming.

Companies, meanwhile, can have a transformative impact. Many of the big tech companies that play a role in gaming—Microsoft, Apple, Google, Ubisoft, and Tencent—have committed to reach net zero by 2030. Other companies have similar targets: Sony aims to reach net zero by 2040, and Activision by 2050. Abraham acknowledges that these targets are heartening, but says more must be done.

“Are things happening at the pace of change that they need to be?” he asks. “No, absolutely not. Things need to be moving quite a bit quicker.”

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