How is the videogame industry impacting climate change?
Dr Ben Abraham is perhaps the foremost Australian academic on videogames. In his latest book, he suggests that the industry has a problem with its carbon emissions.
In his latest book, he explores the games industry’s legacy when it comes to climate change and whether it is doing enough. The book paints a stark picture of an industry that is energy intensive and whose contributions are under researched.
Dr Abraham told Insights that the idea for Digital Games After Climate Change was in the works for some time.
“At the end of my PhD project, around the end of 2015, I started thinking about what I wanted to work on next. I have been a gamer for almost as long as I can remember, and it has always been a part of who I am and what I do, the research I was always most interested in doing, so I knew it would be something in that area,” he said.
“The other thing that I was really beginning to be convinced of was that if the climate crisis is as serious as the science says it is, then I had to do something about it.”
With these factors in mind, Dr Abraham began to wonder what climate change meant for games, and what the industry could do about it.
“This started the journey to figuring out the most basic question of all, which turned out to be an incredibly complicated task, namely what is the actual impact of the games industry on the planet?” he said.
Over the course of the book’s writing, he spoke to developers, collected data about their energy consumption, about the number and method of games that get sold around the world, and the energy used to play games all around the world. There was also the “thorny issue” of how gaming hardware is made, and where these materials come from.
“They all come from somewhere, and the precious materials inside them have to be dug out of the ground somewhere,” Dr Abraham said.
“So the book project came from that, and I finally got the time to actually sit down and bring it all together after I accepted a voluntary redundancy offer from my University at the end of 2020 – otherwise I would probably still be trying to write it in the tiny amount of time I had around teaching responsibilities.”
According to Dr Abraham, part of the problem is putting a figure on what the industry’s emissions are, even as a number of the biggest players declare the need to decarbonise.
“The game industry is not faring great at cutting its emissions – but even more basic than that, I don’t think the industry itself really has a clear sense of what its own emissions are,” he said.
“Even after all the years of work I put it, I haven’t been able to completely put a single overarching figure on the total emissions of the industry! It’s just such a huge, complex and sprawling industry.”
“Encouragingly, the biggest players have started to wake up to the challenge, and are responding in the same sorts of ways that other large organisation are. They are setting carbon neutral targets now, and increasing the work they are doing to get the industry to inch closer to carbon neutral.”
“But we are probably a decade or more away from that point, and unfortunately we simply don’t have the time to spare. Things need to happen faster and faster if we are to prevent the nightmare scenarios the IPCC has been laying out for the past few decades. Some of this will be enabled by wider power system transformation, as renewables increasingly beat out fossil fuel generation for the cheapest (not to mention cleanest) form of electricity, but we can’t rely on this process to automatically do all the work for us. There is so much the industry can, and must, do now and there’s absolutely no time to lose.”
Dr Abraham said that there are a few things people can do, but these will require people to actively work together.
“The main thing is that we need a rapidly decarbonised energy system,” he said.
“The bulk to the immediately addressable solutions to gaming emissions come through using renewable power. Support renewable projects (especially publicly or community owned ones!) and let anyone who will listen know we need a fast transition to fossil fuel free power.”
“If you have the ability to put solar panels on your roof, or on the roof of an organisation you are involved in, go for it.”
“In terms of direct action and pressure for the games industry, it’s difficult to say where to act because many of the key determinants of emissions are decided by huge corporate interests, with only very weak legislative requirements. If you are so inclined, you can write to the EU’s energy efficiency self-regulatory initiative and ask them what they are doing on these issues. This is the closest thing the industry has to an energy policy that might have an impact on end-user gaming emissions.”
“The other big thing readers can do is support ‘right to repair’ legislation in Australia (and elsewhere) which can have a huge impact on the repairability and lifespan of digital devices like games consoles. Not only does this reduce the number of replacement devices we need to buy which brings down emissions, but it saves consumers money too. It’s sort of a no-brainer, but there’s huge resistance to this sort of legislation precisely because it might hurt the bottom line of companies that sell these devices.”
“I am a big fan of the group ‘Australian Religious Response to Climate Change’ who really get the urgency of this issue and the need to organise and be heard. I’d encourage anyone of faith who cares about the future of the earth to get in touch with them and start to follow their example – it can be incredibly encouraging to find other people willing to fight, and see just how many others there are already taking action.’
“Individual actions aren’t going to be enough to save us – we need collective solutions that leverage the power of a mass movement of people. There are so many gamers in the world that only one or two people changing their behaviour or purchasing habits is a drop in the ocean.”
Digital Games After Climate Change is available for purchase now.