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Gaming's environmental impact is bigger than you think

Gaming is a growing hobby. More than two billion people worldwide — including more than 70 percent of Americans — play games regularly, and that number will only grow as more people gain access thanks to smartphones and hardware-free streaming services. While these experiences seem pretty minimal — requiring little more than your phone or a controller and a game console or PC — there's a lot more happening behind the scenes. From the electricity required to run these systems to the data centers around the world that are operating 24/7 to connect gamers to one another and to their virtual worlds, gaming has an unseen environmental cost.

Thinking of gaming machines as appliances

For many gamers, the impact of their hobby starts at home. Consoles and gaming PCs are considerably smaller than your standard household appliance like a refrigerator or washing machine, but it's best to think about these devices in that category to best understand their energy consumption. We typically understand that appliances have an environmental cost — they use up electricity that is more than likely generated by fossil fuel, seeing as about 63 percent of all energy generated in the United States comes from coal and gas power plants, according to the Department of Energy. We're cognizant of this cost in part because an emphasis has been placed on environmentally-friendly appliances — ones that are energy efficient and lessen the burden on the planet. This is how we should think about gaming consoles and PCs, which carry surprisingly high energy costs depending on usage.

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According to Greening The Beast, a research group dedicated to measuring and lessening the environmental impact of gaming, the average gamer will use between five and 375 kWh per year on their gaming habit, depending on their console of choice. (The Playstation 4 and Xbox One generate similar energy demands, while the Nintendo Switch requires considerably less.) These figures will vary, obviously, depending on usage and electrical costs in a person's region. Heavy gamers will generate considerably more — 1,100 kWh per year or more. That is well over the average electrical cost for other household appliances. An energy-efficient washing machine will account for about 318 kWh each year, according to Energy Star data, and the average refrigerator will use up about 495 kWh per year. All of that energy carries a cost, both in cash and in carbon. High-end gamers will spend as much as $2,200 over the course of five years on the energy required to power their gaming habit. That will also pump as much as 2,000 pounds of carbon emissions into the atmosphere each year. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, that is the equivalent of 2,250 miles driven by the average passenger vehicle or of about 115,000 charges of a smartphone.

This level of usage is compounded for PC gamers, who generally have more energy-sucking equipment. Depending on how a rig is set up, PC gamers are providing power to GPUs and CPUs that are doing some heavy lifting to provide top performance, cooling systems that ensure those systems continue to operate and a high-end display to make the most of a machine's graphical capabilities, among other accessories that may require smaller but still significant amount of energy. These rigs are considerably less common than consoles, but also can produce three times the amount of energy consumption and resulting emissions as the less energy-intensive consoles.

"Consumers and even energy experts are far less familiar with the environmental impacts of computer gaming than they are with common household devices such as refrigerators or washing machines," Evan Mills, a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory tells Mic. "There has been good progress in the gaming space, technologically, but the consumer information environment when it comes to energy use and how to reduce it is relatively barren."

The carbon footprint of servers

Of course, gaming isn't contained to just inside your walls at home. Much of the experience takes place online, and to make that work it doesn't just require multiple gamers firing up their systems. There is also the need for a server that hosts these activities — and increasingly, there is need for servers to provide live, lag-free streaming titles.

According to Mills, standard forms of online multiplayer games that you might see with MMORPGs like World of Warcraft typically involve less data moving around on the internet because much of the computing is done on each individual user's machine. Similarly, he says downloading games and software updates does require energy use but is largely built into the existing internet infrastructure.

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While downloading titles does carry some environmental impact, in most cases it is still better than buying physical media, according to a 2014 study. This is because while downloading a title does consume energy — both at the server center hosting the data and on your console or machine that has to be online while the game is installed — that is the entire extent of the consumption. Physical games require a considerable amount of energy just to be produced: discs have to be made, paper and plastic are used to create the packaging, and those games have to be shipped and distributed to stores, where gamers have to drive to and pick them up. There is typically going to be a much higher overall environmental cost linked to those physical titles over the course of the game's lifecycle than would be produced by the digital alternative.

Where gaming will truly see an uptick in environmental impact is streaming platforms like Google Stadia and Project xCloud. These services offer the ultimate convenience, making games accessible to people without the requirement for major hardware. The concept allows people to stream games to basically any platform, be it a phone or a laptop or straight to a TV. That is a boon for gamers on the go and for people interested in gaming but unwilling to make the hundreds of dollars of start-up cost required just to get their hands on a machine or console. But while the services promise a more accessible gaming future, they also carry a considerably larger economic burden.

"Unfortunately the advent of cloud-gaming, where the graphics processing is done in data centers, has a large energy burden and the very large amounts of data that must be moved through the internet pipeline also trigger energy use," Mills says. According to his research, he found that PC-based cloud gaming requires about 500W of power during gameplay. "This is far more than most local desktop or laptop gaming rigs," he notes. In a study published in The Computer Gamers Journal last year, Mills and other researchers found the energy use required in data centers and networks is "markedly higher than that for local gaming."

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These energy demands generated by cloud-based gaming fall in line with the already increasing carbon footprint created by servers and data centers around the world. As more and more of our information is stored digitally and we access it by communicating with the servers that house it, we're creating tons of energy requirements. According to the International Data Corporation, there are more than eight million data centers globally that are tasked with handling all of our data — and they're making a mark on the planet along the way. According to a 2016 report from the The Independent, data centers will consume three times as much energy as they are currently using over the course of the next decade. That's troubling seeing as these data centers already account for more terawatt hours of electricity used than all of the United Kingdom. According to a 2015 report these data centers are responsible for about 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions — about the same amount generated by the entire aviation industry.

The collective impact of gaming

For individuals, thinking about gaming systems as appliances in their homes is a helpful way to be mindful of the energy consumption associated with these devices. But that is just for one gamer in a household. It doesn't give a good sense of just how big of an environmental footprint gaming has collectively. According to data published in the The Computer Gamers Journal, gamers just in the United States consume 34 terawatt-hours of energy each year. Gaming accounts for nearly 2.5 percent of all residential electricity consumed in the country — more than every freezer in the nation combined. That energy usage also comes with a carbon cost. The study found that the emissions created by gaming in the U.S. would be the equivalent of putting five million more cars on the road or putting 85 million more refrigerators into operation across the country.

These figures only account for gamers in the U.S. While most adults in the .U.S spend at least some time gaming, they don't come close to accounting for the entirety of the global gaming population. According to the United Nations, India and China both house more gamers than the United States does, accounting for nearly one billion total gamers combined between the two countries. While other nations have smaller populations, they spend considerably more on the hobby. South Korea, for example, has a population of just 51 million, but more than half of them (28.9 million) are gamers. Korean gamers spend about $200 per year on games, the second-highest level of spending in the world.

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These figures also don't account for some of the ancillary emissions that are associated with gaming. Twitch is a wildly popular platform where people can stream themselves playing games for others to watch in real-time. More people watch gaming content on Twitch and YouTube than tune in to ESPN, Netflix and HBO combined, according to Nielsen research. In total, people spent more than 355 billion hours watching Twitch alone in 2017. These streaming activities carry an environmental cost, same as streaming games and will only continue to grow as gaming's popularity increases.

How gaming can go green

While the number of gamers is expected to continue growing in the coming years, the carbon footprint associated with the hobby doesn't have to. Gamers increasingly have access to products that are less wasteful and energy-hungry. Most consoles now include a power-saving mode that restricts the amount of energy consumed when the console is not in use. Similarly, there are plenty of ways for PC gamers to restrict the environmental impact of their rigs. Greening the Beast has laid out a considerable number of ways to limit the energy consumption of even high-powered gaming computers and encourages gamers to ensure they are using an Energy Star-approved display.

As streaming options become more popular, much of the burden for cutting back on emissions will fall on the shoulders of companies that operate servers and data centers. At least come companies appear up for that challenge. More than a dozen heads of gaming companies have signed on to the United Nations' Playing For The Planet pledge, which sets goals to reduce gaming-related carbon emissions by at least 30 million tons by 2030. The companies have also pledged to help plant more than one million trees, eliminate wasteful materials used to produce physical copies of games, and advance consumer awareness of environmentally friendly options.

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Microsoft, one of the companies that will be vying to become a primary streaming gaming provider, made a promise earlier this year to go carbon negative by 2030. To accomplish that, the company plans to get all data centers — including those that may power xCloud — to run on renewable energy by 2025. “As part of Microsoft's commitment to be carbon negative by 2030, we will continue to focus on technology improvements that will reduce console energy consumption during active play and rest modes," a spokesperson for Microsoft tells Mic. "We are also working with our suppliers to implement consistent and accurate carbon reporting and pursue further carbon reduction opportunities during production and transport. All of these strategies will help reduce the carbon emissions of our Xbox consoles across the product’s full lifecycle.”

A similar lift will be required from gaming's other big providers, including Google, Sony, Nintendo, and others. Gaming is increasingly becoming a way that people connect with one another and spend their free time. Without reducing the impact of this hobby and ensuring the health of the planet, it's going to be game over a lot sooner than anyone would hope.