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Surprisingly, Downloading a Game is Not Necessarily Better for the Environment

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.

STUDY: The Carbon Footprint of Games Distribution

IMAGE: Wikimedia Foundation Servers by Victorgrigas

HT: Corey S. Powell

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  1. Cali says:

    Hello. Good article, but can you please use gender-neutral pronouns in future? It seems strange that you wrote “she” and “her” when you could’ve written “they” and “their”. As a non-binary person I feel excluded when gender specific pronouns are used needlessly. 
    I don’t mean to be pedantic, but I just feel this is an important issue. I realise that you probably used female pronouns in order to be inclusive to women, which is important considering the debates surrounding women in gaming at the moment. But ultimately, gender specific pronouns always exclude a large number of people and I never feel they’re appropriate, as using female pronouns in non-gendered situations implicitly legitimises using male pronouns in those situations too, whereas neutrality is inclusive of everyone. Additionally, gendered pronouns can feel really alienating for people like myself who don’t identify as any gender.
    Thanks, and sorry to put a downer on everything!

  2. Scorp says:

    This doesn’t factor in the fact that you’d likely be using the PC/Console while downloading. As long as you’re doing literally anything with it other than just leaving it and waiting for it to download, it’s still greener than the physical copy.

  3. I’ll admit my eyes glazed over a bit reading that paper, but it didn’t seem to me that they included the packaging for the discs in their calculations. Oh, and there’s this: “The actual process of creating data files for download using data center resources can vary greatly depending on the particular company, software, and purpose of the download, and there are very little data on how to handle variations in the associated electricity intensity at a high level. For example, specific data on the energy used by data centers and content distribution networks used for PS3 games are not available.”

  4. Ary says:

    The fact that they even researched this is dumb. It takes very little time to download even a massive game with a good internet connection. I spend more time with my game on pause talking to a friend or going to the bathroom than I do downloading games. Unless a person is super crazed about their carbon footprint, this isn’t going to matter, and if they are, why are they even spending time with a console or PC?

    • No it’s actually an interesting question. It appears, though, that the data required for a truly accurate assessment is just not available, so they are also working off (educated, I hope) guesses and industry norms. So I think their results should be looked at with that caveat in mind.

  5. @T_Magus666 says:

    I knew it! Long live the compact disc and physical media. Downloading sucks ass!

  6. Jack Donovan says:

    “…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.”
    It seems like the author of the article may mean gigabytes instead of megabytes; the study itself states that digital downloads stop being more efficient than physical games at 1.3 GB. I’ve never seen a game that is smaller than two megabytes, and saying that most AAA titles are above four and a half megabytes is technically correct but I believe it’s more accurate to say most are above four and a half gigabytes. Simple typographical mistake to make, and the point of the article is clearly evident; just wanted to point it out! Thanks for a great article.