TERRA NIL by Free Lives is a game all about rebuilding the environment after destruction. Let's hope it doesn't get to that (Supplied: Free Lives)

Are video games causing climate change? The 2023 Net Zero Snapshot

While some studios are making some big improvements like Microsoft and Ubisoft others have a long way to go.

October 3, 2023 6:30 AM

If you want to play a video game you have to plug something in, that power comes from somewhere and Dr Ben Abraham, has completed the second annual Net Zero Snapshot for the games industry.

Ubisoft is leading the charge dropping their emissions, despite being one of the world's biggest studios, but for many other Triple A game developers they just aren't making enough of a change according to Abraham.

You can read the full report over on the After Climate website.

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SIFTER is produced by Kyle Pauletto, Fiona Bartholomaeus, Daniel Ang, Adam Christou and Chris Button. Mitch Loh is Senior Producer and Gianni Di Giovanni is our Executive Producer. Thanks to Audio Technica Australia for their support of SIFTER.


GIANNI: When you turn on your gaming console, do you think about how much power that's using?

What about its environmental impact? Maybe that you've only got a few devices in your house, but a lot of the people around the world are just like you. They've got one or two devices, probably plugged in all the time, maybe powered up all the time, and that makes a significant contribution to climate change. My name is Gianni Di Giovanni. Thank you so much for joining me.

Dr. Ben Abraham, who's been on the show before, who wrote digital games after climate change last year, has just presented the next snapshot, looking at the biggest players in games and their impact on the environment, and importantly, what they're doing or not doing to help it.

GIANNI: Now this Melbourne International Games Week, you've done a real snapshot of the climate impacts of games across the world. Can you give us a little bit of an introduction to the project and how it all started?

BEN: Sure, yeah. So, it started last year with an interest in looking at what companies in the games industry have committed to the essential climate target of achieving net zero emissions.

And so, I did that actually as a bit of work for Keywords Australia Studios.

And then I expanded on that a little bit and then produced it as a kind of public-facing resource resource so that other studios interested stakeholders in the industry, whether that's investors, maybe that's gamers, that's governments could look at the companies that they're engaging with or playing the games from and see what are they doing on their climate impacts and are they doing enough.

So this year's one, we've updated it with the latest disclosures.

So every year, big companies, particularly big public companies, have to disclose their CO2 emissions in a number of different scopes.

We rolled in a whole bunch of new data and features and things that the games industry is doing to address its kind of emissions, and just providing like kind of the biggest, most high level, well, snapshot of this last 12 months.

You know, the year that was 2022, I mean, we're almost at the end of 2023, but this is the time delay that happens on corporate reporting.

But now we know how much CO2 was emitted by all of the games companies in the world and a bunch of the big tech companies as well.

GIANNI: How much of this industry is captured in the reporting that you've got?

Is there any spots that are missing in particular? Or how do we sort of get a good indication of what this is?

BEN: Yeah, so there's not any one particular organization or resource that has any figures for how big the games industry is.

We see these figures that are estimates, that it's a multi-billion dollar industry.

I think the latest one I saw was somewhere between one and two hundred billion dollars a year, um So the what what the snapshot captures is 36 I think 36 companies.

That are the biggest games companies in the world Uh, some of them are tech companies as well. So there's microsoft in there. There's sony. Um, There's google. There's tencent um, yeah, so so look at looking at those companies that that.

That also do other things, but primarily it's games companies like Activision Blizzard, Nintendo, and a whole bunch of others that you might never have heard of, big mobile games companies.

Yeah, so in terms of the coverage of it, it's really hard to say.

There's nothing in there from the sort of like mid-sized studios, because a lot of those companies are either not publicly traded or they don't have the same sort of emissions reporting requirements. It's also, it's just not as expected yet. And there's no indies in this snapshot either. We know there are hundreds of thousands of, probably hundreds of thousands of game developers who make indie games all around the world. And we just, yeah, have only the vaguest idea of what sort of kind of emissions profile making indie games has.

GIANNI: Is it because these These companies that you've highlighted, the ones that are public and are such a big component of the games industry, they have an outsized impact on climate change because of their scale anyway. Is that kind of the way that you think about it?

Yeah. These are the ones that have the big million tons of CO2 per annum emissions.

So yeah, they're bigger in terms of the money they make, the products they sell, the number of employees they have. And so that just translates into kind of a bigger climate impact.

That's almost certainly going to be the case. And even when we look at some of the work I've done comparing small indie studios to to these big studios.

On metrics that would allow you to compare say, you know, like per employee, how much CO2 do you emit? Even then, the bigger companies still have higher figures than say like an indie studio or probably a mid-sized studio. All right, so lay it on a stock. Is it good or is it bad? Are we heading in the right direction or is this a big problem? I mean, I wish I had better news but But there is still a huge amount of emissions.

So the big, big ticket number is that in the snapshot, there's captured 80 million tons of CO2 disclosed, right?

So that's like what they've admitted to. That's not even always like a full account of it.

Often, you can pick and choose like which categories you report on.

There's areas of the business that's hard to to get data on so you kind of can't calculate some of those things but basically it's a ton of CO2. 80 million tons is around about the same amount of CO2 as the entire country of Bangladesh emitted in 2017.

So if the games industry were a country it's up there right like it's not it's not the biggest in the world but it's got a bigger impact almost certainly the Hollywood.

It's generating huge amounts of money, but it's also generating huge burdens on the planet.

GIANNI: Are there any particular players in the data that you've got who are really moving in the right direction? Have you seen some really good corporate governance and social responsibility governance from their climate policies?

BEN: Yeah, so it's not all bad news. There are a few companies that have managed to reduce their emissions like year on year. So, So that's a new thing we've added this year is the ability to look at the past years if they've done a previous disclosure.

We've included figures for, you know, what percentage are they changing this year?

And there's a couple. So notable one is Ubisoft. Ubisoft is out here, actually one of the biggest game companies in the world, and its emissions are down year on year from 2021 to 2022.

And that's even though the 2022 was like a kind of bounce back year from the COVID lockdown.

So, you know, lots of people started going back to work, started doing more business travel.

So they've done a lot of work to improve their emissions and it's paying off.

There are a couple of others that have just managed to basically keep it the same, which I think is still an achievement worth kind of highlighting.

Because again, as the world opened up again, we started to do more things, started to, you know, go produce emissions basically, we're not longer staying at home. So yeah, there are some good examples there. And I And I think overall what the general trend actually suggests is momentum is building.

And I've kind of been saying this for a while now, like I started doing this sort of work looking at the games industry and its footprint back in 2015 and the change since about 2019 when games companies really started to think about their emissions and started to disclose them to this year and 2022 reporting numbers is huge. It's massive. It's more detailed in terms of what what the companies are disclosing.

They have more plans for how they're going to achieve their net zero.

They're more robust plans.

There are more things being done to say, reduce the energy footprint of end users.

So gamers themselves, Microsoft has done a whole bunch of work there identifying ways to design games in a way that you reduce the emissions of the end user as well.

And that's paying off. In March, they announced that they built, or they saved the equivalent energy and emissions of a small wind farm, which is huge, just through software changes to the game.

GIANNI: It's just by default, turning your Xbox off when you press the power button rather than going to sleep.

That's one of the things that they changed, I think was one of the simple changes, right?

BEN: So that's part of it. That's not even the most interesting part.

The most interesting bit is what they did in Fortnite. So Fortnite is obviously a huge game.

There's lots and lots of players.

And they looked at the way that people were playing that game and said, all right, is there a big gaps where people are, pausing or they're going off to get a drink or food or taking a break or whatever.

In those periods, we don't need to be rendering at 120 frames a second with full detailed models.

And so they decided, all right, well, we'll lower the resolution, we'll cap the frame rate and how much power can we save? It's tiny, tiny amounts.

No one's gonna notice the difference, But it adds up because there are millions and millions and millions of Fortnite players.

He added up to something like, I think it was around 10 to 15 megawatt hours of power a day, which is like a small wind farm.

It was really, really impressive.

GIANNI: All right, who's doing the worst job?

Oh man, it's actually really hard to say because there are some companies that won't even tell us.

They're not even like, they're not even counting what their emissions are.

And I think that's a real shame and quite disappointing.

So again, the, I guess the two.

Two of the worst offenders, I suppose, if you saw last year's snapshot, we mentioned them as well, but it was Roblox and Square Enix.

Square Enix has improved a tiny bit. They've started to disclose how much electricity they use, but that's a tiny fraction of their total footprint. So that's a little disappointing.

And Roblox, really disappointingly, have an environment, society, and governance section of their report and then they don't mention anything about the environment.

They just don't even touch it. They don't say anything. It's like, come on guys, it's right there. It's right there.

GIANNI: It's interesting when you look at something like Square Enix, for example, who have gone very big into the blockchain, which is of course, well, you know, a very energy intensive for what benefit players will be asking, probably not that much at all, whether or not that has an impact on their things.

And I'm curious, you talked a little bit about some of the end user changes that these companies have made. But is this really a problem that can be solved at the end user level?

Are there things that we should be doing differently? Or is this much bigger than a few changes you could make on your console at home?

BEN: Yeah, it's a good question.

Look, it's everything all at once. That's the nature of the challenge in front of us. We We need to do everything we can at the corporate level.

Where Microsoft can do things, where Sony can do things, where Nintendo can do things.

It needs to be acting as much as it can.

And I think, to varying degrees, they're all sort of aware of the things they could be doing.

I think the pace of change is maybe not quite what I think it should be, but at least there's this kind of action.

In terms of gamers themselves, individually, the challenge is that you don't have that much of an impact.

It's the fact that there's so many of us, right? There are millions, in fact billions of gamers in the world.

And collectively, that is a big burden on the planet. planet. So any one individual's actions is sort of like, well, you know, don't, Don't beat yourself up over it. Don't think that...

You know, the responsibility doesn't solely lie with us, right? It's got to happen with all of us.

But the things that I think gamers can do are to kind of be aware of this, you know, this burden that does exist from gaming and then talk about it and ask the people that make your games what they're doing about it. Like, what is your favorite studio's carbon emissions plan like? Do they have a plan for Zero Missions operations? What's their next game's carbon footprint like?

If you talk to them or you're on their Discord or whatever, yeah, you can post these questions and maybe it's the first time they've ever thought of it.

Yeah, I think we can push things in that direction by just being a bit noisy about it.

GIANNI: And what's the most surprising or interesting thing that you've discovered from doing the snapshot this year?

The most surprising thing I think is that we're now at a point where enough games companies are disclosing their data that even if you don't I can make pretty good guesses about what your footprint will be because you know I, think there's about 17 just games companies not even including the big tech companies just games companies 17 out of about 30 so you know more than a half are now disclosing a good amount of their emissions.

So even if you're someone like Square Enix or Roblox or whatever, we're going to find out. We're going to know how much CO2 you're using just because it's going to be at least this much, probably it'll be more. And I think the The thing is, like, for those companies, it's, like...

It's kind of a risk, right? You just don't know. Things are happening. Governments are asking companies to do more.

Consumers are asking companies to do more. I think gamers are ready to start joining the rest of the world in demanding more sustainable products.

GIANNI: And if people want to learn more about this, where should they head to?

BEN: You can go to the After Climate website and check out the online webpage. You can read the full report and there will be a link to a spreadsheet you can go and dig into if you want to see exactly who's doing what. It'll be all online on the After Climate website.

GIANNI:  That's Dr. Ben Abraham from After Climate who has just presented a snapshot looking at the biggest industry players in video games, those companies that are making the biggest contributions to the industry as well as climate change and in finding out exactly what they're doing about it.

SIFTER is produced by Carl Paleto, Fiona Bartholomaeus, Daniel Ang and Adam Christou, as well as Chris Button. Mitch Loh is our senior producer and my name is Gianni Di Giovanni, and I'm the executive producer. Thanks to Audio Technica Australia for their support of SIFTER.

We'll have plenty of cool stuff coming to you throughout Melbourne International Games Week, so stick with SIFTER as we bring you the latest.

Until next time, have fun.

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