Video gaming is one of the largest sectors of the entertainment industry. US video game revenue hit $44 billion in 2018, more than the combined worldwide movie box office of $42 billion. Games have let us connect, learn, compete, and inspire as the industry has supersized. The current number of gamers across the globe tops 2.3 billion and is rising every day!
However, video games’ colossal impact does produce some serious environmental consequences. Let’s talk about ewaste: the hardware that’s trashed when your computer dies or your game console quits working. That computer frame, battery, charging cord, or plastic box that plays your discs (and the discs themselves) usually ends up in a landfill, where it doesn't decompose. In 2016, 7 million metric tons (7.7 million US tons) of ewaste were generated in North America alone.
Greenpeace’s lists of the most environmentally responsible companies have mentioned plenty of game names. The last time they included Nintendo, in 2010, the company received one of the lowest ranks possible, although lack of publicly available information about Nintendo's policies may have helped lower that score. These days, Nintendo touts its Take Back Program. For US and Canadian customers, it will recycle Nintendo hardware, software, accessories and rechargeable batteries, free.
Most game controllers and video game cases and some of the game printed circuit boards themselves (known as PCBs, they’re shaped like small floppy disks) are almost all plastic! Plastic breaks down into smaller bits of itself and never fully disintegrates. Considering how fast technology becomes obsolete, a good portion of that 7.7 million tons of ewaste consists of that popular material.
Another enemy lurks when it comes to environmental health and ewaste: toxic materials. Greenpeace’s latest report, in 2017, also downgraded HP, Lenovo, and Microsoft for not removing toxic materials, such as flame retardants and vinyl plastics, from their computers. Apple, on the other hand, has been taking more positive steps toward a greener future and ranked a B- overall in the report. HP scored a C+, while Lenovo and Microsoft each scored a C-.
In September, some of the largest companies in the business (Microsoft, Google Stadia, Sony Interactive Entertainment, etc.) grouped up to create an alliance called Playing for the Planet with the goal to reduce video gaming’s environmental impact. Microsoft has aimed to make 825,000 Xbox systems carbon neutral, and Sony expects the PlayStation 5 to consume 17 times less energy in standby mode (going from 8.5 watts per hour to 0.5 watts per hour) than the PlayStation 4.
Downloading games, which can cost up to 70 GB of a computer’s hard drive space, takes a lot of energy. Possible solutions include the rise of cloud computing, which stores information fully online, or in the “cloud,” and streams games to consoles or mobile devices. Multiple platforms now use cloud computing, most notably Steam for PC gamers and PlayStation Now for PlayStation players. Microsoft and Google have recently announced their own streaming initiatives, Project XCloud and Google Stadia, respectively.
Some games have shifted their storylines toward saving the environment. The popular SimCity franchise released SimCity Societies in 2007. In contrast to other games of its genre, SimCity Societies focuses gamers on creating the greenest city they can. Some indie games, such as Block’hood, shift the lens to a sustainable future, where the consequences can be dire if the player doesn’t use their resources wisely in building both their city and the environment. If that happens, both areas will suffer in the game, as they do in real life.
Is there a solution to gaming’s sustainability predicament? Not necessarily, at least right now. The gaming industry is but one of many industries that are straining the environment due to a lack of sustainable energy. As clean, renewable energy comes on line, games can be bigger and better without damaging the environment. That leads to a happy gamer, and a happy Earth.
The next time you pick up a controller, make sure you think about what’s going on in the real world. When you support the companies who make your games, make sure they do their part to move toward a healthy planet.