How much carbon dioxide does it take to pwn a n00b? That depends on if you are playing a physical copy of the game.
Think about everything that goes into getting your video game. Game studios spend years in air-conditioned offices developing and tweaking art, characters and gameplay. Once the game “goes gold,” it’s sent to a manufacturing plant where strings of code are etched into thousands and or millions of discs. From there, trucks take pallets of “Set-Piece Shooter 7” to retail stores. Finally, you drive out to pick one up at midnight like a responsible adult. How much did all of that cost environmentally?
Like it or not, these are the kinds of business details that craft even digital products. Our atmosphere is bloated with excess carbon dioxide, and nations are clamoring for a way to (most conveniently and profitably) curb the warming trend. As a gamer, I’d wager that the growing trend of digitally downloading games is much better for the environment. No driving, no discs, no waste afterwards. But when you sort out where all the energy is actually going, grabbing a game from a data center may just outweigh all that fancy dematerialization.
In this week’s Journal of Industrial Ecology, researchers have published a study looking at the total equivalent carbon footprint of physical and digitally downloaded games. More specifically, they analyzed the energy requirements for the lifetime of each game type (production, distribution, gameplay, reuse, disposal) for Playstation 3 titles in the UK in 2010.
What they found was odd. While gameplay itself made up the majority of the energy cost over the lifetime of a game – you use a good amount of electricity exploring that “one last dungeon” in Skyrim – it turns out that the electricity you use while waiting for a game to download outweighs the equivalent carbon emissions from printing and shipping physical games.
Why the increase? Well, thanks to Blu-ray technology, modern console games are packing enormous amounts of data onto their disks. The researchers calculated that the average PS3 game in 2010 was a whopping 9 gigabytes. Using that average and adding together electricity use by the average console, data center, sever, etc. in the UK to download a game of that size, a digital download has a bigger carbon footprint than something you could actually make a footprint with. The margin wasn’t huge, but it does contradict a concept that seemed self-evident.
Either way, one game over its playable life contributes 10-30 kilograms of CO2 equivalent to the atmosphere, the researchers concluded.
Of course, there are boundaries and caveats. Based on their numbers, the researchers figured that any game under about two megabytes would have less environmental impact than a physical copy, while any game over four and a half megabytes (most AAA titles) is worth purchasing in meatspace. And because the Internet is increasing in efficiency all the time, these conclusions may have changed a bit since 2010. On top of that, there are niggling variables like whether or not a gamer turns off her TV during a download, if she leaves her console idle while downloading the game or continues to use it to watch a movie, and all of this is based on energy data that was estimated, extrapolated, or partially missing.
The researchers noted these caveats in the results, saying that “the balance of estimated carbon emissions favors distribution by physical Blu-ray disks for typical headline game titles, but for future comparisons, results are uncertain.” That’s not exactly a headshot of clarity.
Still, if this research is even in the right ballpark, it may help distributors rethink how to get their games into the hands and hard drives of consumers (the environmentally-conscious distributors at least) in a growing games market. Oh, and if you assume that a skilled first-person shooter player can rack up 150 kills in an hour, then over the playable life of the game the researchers used, you can pwn 1,250 n00bs per kilogram of equivalent carbon dioxide. Because science.
Kyle Hill is the Chief Science Officer of the Nerdist Enterprise. Follow the continued nerdery on Twitter @Sci_Phile.
HT: Corey S. Powell