Videogame Climate Strategy Requires More than Platitudes

Playing for the Planet

With so much attention on COVID-19 over the past two years, it has been difficult to focus on the issues that ignited public discussion before the pandemic. Indeed, for many who weren’t directly affected, the bushfires that ravaged parts of Australia at the end of 2019 are a distant, hazy memory. Yet their impact and their cause – climate change – remain pressing issues, and video­games are not blameless in this area. Computers and video­game consoles use immense amounts of electricity, contributing substantially to climate change. The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X, for example, run at roughly 200 watts, an effect that is magnified by the fact that over 16 million of them have been collectively sold. (The Nintendo Switch, in comparison, runs at something like 10 watts.) Of course, further environmental costs are incurred from each machine’s production, as well as in the e-waste that is often produced at the end of their lifespan.

With this in mind, it may seem like a positive step that, in October, the Interactive Games & Entertainment Association (IGEA) became an associate member of the Playing for the Planet Alliance, which aims to make games, and game companies, more environmentally sustainable. IGEA in particular aims to become carbon neutral by 2023 while limiting carbon emissions associated with the Games Connect Asia Pacific (GCAP) conference and co-working space The Arcade. They also intend to organise a local ‘Green Game Jam’, in which designers aim to promote climate-positive messages to players through their games.

A closer look at the Playing for the Planet initiative is, unfortunately, less than promising; their white paper’s key goals are merely the ‘restoration of forests and reforestation, and “nudges” that move companies and individuals towards more planet-friendly choices’, with a view to ‘“level up” for the planet’. Their seven recommendations include feel-good but arguably ineffectual actions such as ‘create an annual impact season’, ‘pledge for the planet’ and ‘team up, reward, and make it famous’. In contrast, they propose very little in the way of direct action – a recommendation to cut e-waste stands out as the most tangible outcome.

It may seem cynical to immediately critique such a partnership before any change has actually occurred; after all, any action on climate change may be better than none. However, carbon offset schemes have a history of operating on flawed systems, as The Guardian reported in May last year regarding airline-run initiatives. Moreover, as Ben Abraham noted when speaking to GamesHub about the announcement, carbon offsets and tree planting are often far less effective than taking direct action to curb emissions.

Compounding any scepticism is the IGEA’s prior ­decision to allow GCAP 2021 to be sponsored by Immutable X, a company that does business in non-fungible tokens (NFTs). An overview of what NFTs actually are and how they work is unfortunately well beyond the scope of this column; importantly, however, they come with immense environmental costs, and their use is already becoming widespread within Australian game making scenes. If we are truly concerned about the ways that local game making practices affect the environment, we must attend to the ways that NFTs are being deployed in Australian games.

Although Immutable X claims that ‘Any NFT that is ­created or traded on Immutable X is 100% carbon neutral’, the immense amounts of emissions created by NFTs are nigh impossible to account for. The company provides no verifiable information about how this carbon neutrality is being achieved. A single jargon-filled Medium post ‘explains’ the process the company uses to make its NFTs carbon neutral – that is, by deploying opaque technological solutions, and buying carbon credits to offset carbon emissions, which they estimate using ‘complicated maths’ that ‘depends on many factors’. If the IGEA is truly serious about meeting their environmental obligations, accepting sponsorship from an NFT company seems counterproductive to say the least.

It is worth noting that games are not the only area in which NFTs, and cryptocurrency more broadly, have recently surfaced. In October, a Senate report from the Select Committee on Australia as a Technology and Financial Centre argued that ‘there is significant scope for Australia to benefit from becoming a leader in the digital assets [i.e. cryptocurrency] space’. Clearly, a disinterest in the environmental costs of cryptocurrency goes far beyond Australian game makers and affiliated organisations, extending to federal parliament itself.

Whether the aim is to cut emissions, become ‘carbon neutral’ or reach ‘net zero’, a commitment to the environment is incompatible with an embrace of cryptocurrency, which currently consumes more electricity than entire countries. No number of trees planted will offset the carbon released from a single crypto transaction. Carbon neutrality in this context is a pipedream, and divestment from cryptocurrency and NFTs – and the companies that profit from them – is the only way to prevent further emissions from occurring.

To take a wider view, climate action requires more than collaborating with seemingly well-meaning organisations, or throwing money at ostensibly beneficial initiatives. It requires effort, as well as paying attention to new technologies and the ways that they can harm the planet. We deserve better leadership from our governments and our representative associations – because anything less is a half-measure.