The elephant in the room

What's the carbon footprint of gaming?

19th April 2018

You’ve got in from an exhausting week of work, you’ve cracked open a cold beverage — the alcoholic content of which will vary depending on just how exhausting your week was — collapsed onto the couch, grabbed your controller and activated the sweet overture of a games console coming to life.

It time to relax and save the world from aliens, demons and obscenely talented 14-year-olds who only have disparaging comments to make about your mother. The last thing you need is some smart-alecky journalist harshing your buzz.

Well tough, it’s Earth Week on The Overtake, and an environmental review is easier than giving up showering or plastic for a month like some sort of maniac.

The games industry is a multi-billion dollar gargantuan.  As of last year, in the UK alone there are estimated to be over 8 million households with a least one console. Globally, there are 1.8 billion gamers, with 600 million using consoles.

That is what scientists refer to as a fuck tonne of gamers. And a fuck tonne of gamers use a fuck tonne of energy. And even if you’re not a member of the “PC Master Race” – that’s genuinely what some of them call themselves – or a hardcore gamer, a few hours a week spread over 600 million players a year, is billions of gaming hours.

But it’s not just gaming that is eating up time and energy. Consoles are serving as “Netflix machines”  and dominating the TV streaming market. The irony being that consoles use more than 30 times the energy as dedicated streaming devices, thanks to background processes like downloads, messaging, monitoring your friends or losing all your data in The Cloud… whatever that is.

So how much time do we spend gaming? Thankfully, British Gas and Cebr made a table for us to all look at and feel terrible about — but let’s admit it; we only really care about the big two. An Xbox One will clock up around 247 hours, while a PS4 hits 272 – having more than one exclusive game a year helps apparently.

Console Cost to run per year (including standby) Watts / Active Hour (excluding standby) Hourly active operating cost (pence­) Number of hours per £1 electricity
Xbox One £43 247.25 3.59 22
PlayStation 4 £35 272.25 3.96 25
PlayStation 3 (2007) £32 285.35 4.15 24
Xbox 360 (2007) £29 254.05 3.69 27
Desktop PC £27 184.50 2.68 37
Xbox (2001) £20 199.25 2.90 35
PlayStation 2 (2000) £14 159.45 2.32 43
Wii U (2012) £14 169.25 2.46 41
Wii (2006) £13 151.65 2.20 45
GameCube (2000) £13 158.25 2.30 43
PlayStation (1994) £12 143.25 2.08 48
Super Nintendo (1991) £12 142.55 2.07 48
Nintendo 64 (1996) £11 142.55 2.07 48
Sega Mega Drive £11 141.55 2.06 49
Laptop £4 n/a n/a

Luckily for you, not only is this a downer article, it’s heavy on mathematics.

Using an average provided by Energy Star, we can say conservatively that consoles use 134 kilowatt-hours (kWh) a year. A kilowatt-hour being how many thousand watts a device uses in an hour. This is more important than the actual hours a device spends active or in stand-by, as it is focused on its energy consumption.

Now for the maths part; if we multiply the average kilowatt hours of a console (134) by the number of console gamers worldwide, even assuming the gamers are only using one console (600 million) we can work out the average kilowatt hours gaming. It’s 80,400,000,000 kWh. Because numbers with lots of zeros become incomprehensible pretty quickly, let’s call it 80.4 billion kWh.

In 2013, the global percentage of energy that came from renewables was around 22% and by 2020 this should increase to 25%.

“Why give us this useless bit of information?! If you’re going to spoil our games at least do it quickly,”  you might rightfully demand.

Console gaming produces 28,265,424 tonnes of CO2e

Well, from this, using an online calculator that utilises Britain’s renewable energy — 27.4% in 2015 — we can generously work out how much carbon dioxide or equivalent (CO2e) console gaming produces.

It is 28,265,424 tonnes of CO2e. Because it’s a gas it can be very hard to put that into perspective but here is a simple way. It weights exactly the same as 28,265,424 tonnes of bricks. Or 28,265,424 of feathers if you’re that way inclined.

Another way of looking at is that CO2e emissions weigh the same as more than four million elephants. Only there is no way of proving that with a hilariously oversized set of scales because there are less than a million elephants left on the planet. And they’re fucking elephants! As a species, our gaming waste in a year weighs four times more than all the elephants that exist!

So is there good news? No.

But, consoles are better or at least less bad, for the environment that gaming PCs. The number of PC gamers outweighs the number of console gamers and a decent gaming set up uses ten times the kWh.  Maybe we should give up the idea that the PC “Master race” are basement dwelling nerds with poor hygiene who hate women and instead, re-imagine them as basement dwelling nerd with poor hygiene who hate women AND elephants.

The production of discs and cases, as well as their distribution, has left a substantial footprint on Mother Nature’s beautiful face

All this only takes into account the environmental cost of playing games. Acquiring games has its own impact.  The production of discs and cases, as well as their distribution, has left a substantial footprint on Mother Nature’s beautiful face and according to a relatively interesting paper in fantastically boring sounding Journal of Industrial Ecology from 2014, downloads were only marginally better than physical copies.

If the file size of a game surpassed 8.8GB, downloading would leave a larger environmental roundhouse to Gaia’s chops than its physical copies. Fallout 4, by example, is around 40GB. But, if you read the paper thoroughly you will have noticed a vital piece of information I have missed out. Well done you.

For those of you too lazy to read a lengthy academic paper filled with statistics, tables and almost self-indulgent discussion on download speeds, the study in question was done using a PS3, nearly four years ago. This means it doesn’t take into account later generation consoles ability download while in low watt using rest mode or the fact that internet speeds have gotten so much better thus reducing the time needed to download a game.

Add to that that fact that digital downloads don’t produce physical waste. Old games, boxes and consoles are made of broadly unrecyclable plastic and will eventually get binned. The second-hand market and nostalgia for retro-gaming will keep some percentage of games from the scrap pile but nowhere near enough.  For certain there is at least one copy of the game adaptation of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is in a bin someplace. It was properly rubbish.

Digital seems like the way to go it but we currently don’t have enough recent data to weigh up the costs and benefits and there are too many variables to make that claim for sure.

Every respawn is a peanut from an elephant’s mouth — or something like that

Firstly, the time a console is active and its kWh is slightly different. Leaving your console to download a game overnight rather than while you’re watching Netflix or playing some other game may actually be less harmful than trying to do both at the same time, although leaving your console in rest mode perpetually is obviously worse than turning it off entirely.

Further, as the games industry continues to produce content free games – I’m looking at you Sea of Thieves and No Man’s Sky – constant downloads and updates may possibly have a larger impact than buying a physical copy of a game that requires no or very few updates.

Add to that the market’s love of Downloadable Content as a money spinner and the benefit of more powerful consoles with better internet speeds might become negligible.

No one is going to stop playing games. They’re just too fun and there is too much money to be made. And if we really believe in free speech, the proper free speech where you’re entitled to say any old bollocks that crosses your mind, then we must ask the question, do elephants deserve as much room as gas produced by gaming?  So what’s to be done about the environmental impact of gaming?

Obviously being environmentally savvy will help. Turn off consoles at the wall, switch to a green energy provider, don’t download free games you have no intention of playing or take up a hobby that has a smaller carbon footprint, like bird watching or competitive kickball or tire burning or any of that stuff you’re already bored of being lectured about.

Should you consider the environmental impact of your rig? Yes, yes you should

But you can also try out a little selfish altruism, be kind to yourself and incidentally help the environment. Try a faster internet provider to speed up downloads of games and anything else that you might be downloading in bulk – the quicker the download, the less chance of an embarrassed partner who feels rejected to catch you.

Consoles are getting more and more energy efficient — two years ago Sony released a version of the PS4 in Japan that uses 18-50% less energy depending what mode it is running. Find out if an upgrade would increase your efficiency and buy it. Keep your old consoles and games, rather than trade them in or scrap them. If you’re feeling particularly nice give them to an orphanage or a hospital or friendless nerd you know.

And if you’re too lazy to be environmentally friendly or are doing your best but still feel guilty, donate some money to a green charity. I read there aren’t as many elephants as there once was, help them.

19th April 2018