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Gaming's Carbon Footprint: Are Downloaded Games Actually Worse Than Disks?

Sep 04, 2014 04:34 PM EDT

Here's something that you probably didn't see coming. The amount of greenhouse gases emitted during the production of a hard Blu-ray disk is actually less than the carbon released during the download of a single videogame.

That's according to a study recently published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, which found that the seemingly good transition of videogames from disks to the cloud is actually hurting the Earth.

Past research has found that the "digital revolution" is largely helping to mitigate climate change, by reducing the amount of industry and shipping required to sell things like movies and music albums. By moving albums from physical CD's to databases like iTunes, fewer delivery trucks hit the streets and more factories - complete with noxious smokestacks - closed their doors for good.

It was thought that the same would happen when the most recent generation of video game consoles revealed that games would be purchased and downloaded online. However, according to new research on the carbon footprint of the Playstation3 (PS3), this just isn't the case... (scroll to read on)

Measuring data on gaming in the United Kingdom for 2010, researchers found that the carbon emissions of 8.8 gigabyte (the average size for a PS3 game) downloads were strikingly higher than the emissions produced during the production, distribution, and even delivery of a physical disk.

The cause, the authors write, was energy consumption, where gamers were leaving their PS3s on for extended periods of time to download a new game. It's hard to imagine that a small black box hooked up to a television could use more energy than a factory and delivery trucks, but when you consider that each of these machines is only "producing" one game per download, compared to the multitudes that a single factory can make in far less time, it makes a bit more sense.

This then raises concerns about the next generation of gaming. The PS4, for instance, is already releasing games double and triple the size of its predecessor. While internet strengths and download times are getting better in the wake of cloud-based systems, the efficiency of disk production is also expected to improve by at least 15 percent by 2015.

It's Up to The Gamer

"Consumer behavior can have a significant impact," the authors add. "If consumers were to increasingly drive just to buy 'must have' or new launch games and no other purchases (as with the case where stores open at midnight to sell new launch games), then [disks] would account for carbon equivalent emissions in the same range as that for downloading."

However, in the same breath they add that if more and more gamers choose to leave their consoles on for downloads while out or sleeping - a sin that most gamers will admit to being guilty of - the carbon footprint of disks has no hope of catching up for at least the next two years.

"Users would be well advised to consider their usage behavior, such as maintaining autopower down settings," the authors concluded, but "the results of this study are unlikely to change or influence consumer behaviors."

In other words, they know gamers aren't thinking about the state of the Earth as they buttonmash away.

Wait, So How...?

Also, not everyone immediately draws the connection between electricity use and carbon emissions. When thinking "greenhouse gases," the iconic image of thick smoke billowing from behemoth industrial smokestacks usually comes to mind.

Plugging in a blender or gaming console? Not so much.

But it's important to remember that most of our electricity comes from coal-burning power plants, the very things that the United Nation's Sustainable Development Solutions Network has been urging countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and China to step away from for years.

"Bringing down carbon emissions means retiring more fossil fuel-burning facilities than we build," researcher Steven Davis of UCI explained in a recent release.

Davis recently authored a study that details how existing power plants around the world will spew out more than 300 billion more tons of carbon dioxide over their lifetime.

"We've built more coal-burning power plants in the past decade than in any previous decade, and closures of old plants aren't keeping pace with this expansion," he added. "Far from solving the climate change problem, we're investing heavily in technologies that make the problem worse."

And he can, at least in part, blame the gamers. It would be hard to estimate how much of a burden every 12-year-old going to war in Call of Duty places on the National Grid, but it undeniably contributes to the ever-increasing power needs of growing populations.

So Are We Doomed?

Don't break out the torches and pitchforks against gamers just yet. Despite an increased energy burden placed by downloading games, the overall electricity consumption of the United States, United Kingdom and Japan - all considered major gaming consumers - has remained relatively constant over the last decade.

In fact, South Korea, arguably the most game-crazy country in the world, is one of the only major consumers who is still raising its electricity consumption per capita.

Even China, with the most heavily populated city in the world, is admirably struggling to cut costs despite low numbers. Even as it remains the largest consumer of coal, it is also the world leader in renewable energy growth, constantly adapting new and more efficient technologies as it strives to keep its power needs in check.

And Sony, the producer of the Playstation gaming consol, appears to be thinking the same thing. The company recently announced plans to have zero carbon emissions associated with the production of their electronics by 2050.

While the company seems to be making these changes in good faith, thinking about the state of climate change, it is also expected that by adapting cleaner technologies and renewable materials, Sony will be saving a great deal of money.

So game in peace knowing that your pixilated past-time isn't exactly dooming the Earth to scorched ruin. Just remember to turn the thing off when you're done.

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