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Examining the game industry’s hidden impacts on climate change

Water water everywhere, and all the [circuit] boards did shrink...
Enlarge / Water water everywhere, and all the [circuit] boards did shrink…

Getty Images | Aurich Lawson

Amid the stress of living on a warming planet, playing video games is an escape for billions. Whether you’re inhaling mystical doodads in Kirby and the Forgotten Land or cruising through Guanajuato in Forza Horizon 5, games offer a digital retreat that feeds our fundamental need to play.

Unfortunately, the scope of climate change is such that we will need to rethink almost every element of global society—including the game industry.

Ben Abraham has been thinking about the need for that kind of change for a long time. Speaking with Ars, Abraham recalled how, as a teenager, the top floor of his parents’ split-level Australian home would become a grueling sauna thanks to a combination of the summer sun outside and a gaming PC (with cathode ray tube monitor) hemorrhaging heat inside.

Today, Abraham links the memory of that heat-filled room to the future of games. His recent book, Digital Games After Climate Change, summarizes years of research focused on the environmental impact of digital games and includes detailed estimates of the industry’s carbon footprint and suggestions for what the industry can do to reduce it.

The scale of the problem

In his book, Abraham analyzes the climate impacts of the game industry from development to consumption.
Enlarge / In his book, Abraham analyzes the climate impacts of the game industry from development to consumption.

The true magnitude of climate change defies comprehension. To have a hope of staying under 2º C of warming over pre-industrial levels, we need to reduce our output of CO2 by almost 10 percent every year for decades—and likely even faster. It’s the very scope of climate change that, some believe, causes us to lose sight of solutions and often misunderstand what the real issue even is.

While comparisons between climate commitments and World War II are generally overused, the scale of both undertakings is similar. As with World War II, meeting climate commitments could require quick and nearly universal changes in land use and rationing of basic goods.

Video games (and the hardware on which they are played) are closer to frivolous luxuries than basic goods. And if we want to avoid any talk of rationing those games for the “greater good” of climate change, individual action isn’t enough. It will require a holistic, industry-wide mobilization that acknowledges the externalities of the creation and consumption of games.

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