Oceans of ink and a forest of boutique industries have sprung forth to fill the growing desire of the well-meaning to make “eco-friendly” choices. What food can families put on the Christmas dinner table with the lowest carbon footprint? Is this flatscreen television Energy Star certified? What aviation offsets are best for defraying the emissions impact of a transoceanic vacation?
Video games, the court of sustainability judgments has declared, are sinful.
Following recent research papers investigating the growing energy consumption associated with gaming, journalists and environmental advocates have reacted with shock to the revelation that video gaming in the U.S. state of California alone likely consumes more electricity annually than whole countries, exceeding the total current electricity consumption of Sri Lanka or Senegal. “Cloud gaming: Are game streaming services bad for the planet?” asked a BBC print article. Reporting on the same research studies, Wired Magazine declared “Next-Gen Gaming Is an Environmental Nightmare,” while Polygon warned vividly that cloud gaming “could be a big problem for the climate.”
But horrified introspection about the environmental impact of Playstation usage is seriously misplaced. When one-third of Senegalese lack electricity access, the pressing issue isn’t that California gamers consume too much power, but that many rural Senegalese don’t have access to the energy they should. Despite the rhetorical appeal, sermons on trimming consumption for the climate’s sake do nothing to solve the critical climate challenge of guaranteeing abundant and affordable clean energy globally, such that both Californians and Senegalese can enjoy a high quality of life and protect themselves from climate impacts.
Furthermore, moral crusades over carbon footprints often direct their energy counterproductively. It turns out that staying home and gaming is far less environmentally sinful per hour of leisure than driving to the nearest national park, driving one’s kids to sports practices, driving to the state fair, and other incredibly common leisure activities that happen to involve driving. Objectively, journalists should be writing much more about how bad nature road trips are for the environment. Why don’t they?
Upon even superficial reflection, it is obvious that the energy needed to propel a vehicle weighing 1-2 tons at 90 km/hr is greater than the energy needed to run a gaming computer.
The answer is that our environmental intuition is shaped by subjective value judgments and associations reinforced over a lifetime, with the result that we are primed to intuitively believe some things are good environmental choices even though they hardly correspond with what the best choices are in practice. Confirmation bias, together with our desire to maintain cognitive consistency, makes us more willing to believe that things we don’t like also happen to be harmful and negative for society, and those things we do like also happen to be healthy and societally beneficial. Such biases impact not just how we think about lifestyle choices, but also how we develop stances on technology, nature, science, climate policy, and more. Given the stakes, we need to be critically aware of when we are engaging in motivated thinking, and what the consequences are. Indeed, stepping back, one rapidly realizes that the entire carbon footprint exercise is ridiculous to begin with.
Upon even superficial reflection, it is obvious that the energy needed to propel a vehicle weighing 1-2 tons at 90 km/hr is greater than the energy needed to run a gaming computer. Pointing this out isn’t to argue that one should agonize over their regular automobile use, particularly given the many regions even in advanced economies where cars are the only viable means of transportation. Rather, an interesting question is: why is it so appealing to become distracted by the supposed environmental impacts of something like video gaming?
In terms of cognitive biases, gaming is just an easy target. Despite becoming increasingly mainstream, global, social, and even physically active with the dawn of VR, gaming still generally carries negative associations. Everyone from grandpa waxing nostalgic about the virile good old days of outdoor play to a father worrying about their daughter’s Xbox time is already inclined to accept the idea that video games are not a virtuous hobby. Gaming is also fundamentally “unnatural.” Our prehistoric ancestors may have gone on nature hikes and played team sports, but they certainly did not blast each other with power-up items in Mario Kart.
It would thus be narratively poetic if video gaming also happened to belch greenhouse gas emissions, but objectively that isn’t the case. Let’s lay out the numbers.
Two primary factors drive CO2 emissions from video gaming. First, the hardware and the mode of gaming determine power consumption. Second, gaming online adds further electricity demand from network and data center needs. One of the most energy-intensive modes of gaming is cloud gaming, where the player leverages high-end, remote hardware at a data center and streams gameplay back to their device. This allows the gamer to play more demanding games on low-powered devices, but consumes more energy due to higher data traffic needs and the electricity required to run hardware on the service provider’s end.
In the United States, the carbon intensity of electricity production can range from 0.2 kg CO2/kWh in the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) region to 0.9 kg CO2/kWh in regions with significant coal power production, like the Western Area Colorado Missouri Balancing Authority (WACM).
Ultimately, if a gamer in the WACM service region were using fairly decadent hardware (cloud gaming on a Playstation 4 with a high-end, power-hungry television), their hourly carbon emissions would be 0.72 kg CO2. The same gamer, if based in California, would emit a whopping 78% less CO2 (0.16 kg CO2 per hour), and could cut that in half again by instead playing an offline, single-player game on a more efficient gaming PC (0.08 kg CO2 per hour).
Now, let’s consider two individuals who spend their Saturday in very different ways. A gamer stays home and marathons video games for six hours straight. On the same Saturday, a hiker drives one hour at 96 km/hr to a national park, goes on a four-hour hike, then drives one hour home.
As it turns out, gaming is just about as environmentally sinful as baking desserts.
We’ll assume the hiker has a choice of six vehicles. They can drive two non-hybrid internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles (300 to 240 g CO2/km), or two hybrid-electric vehicles (we assume half the carbon intensity, or 150 g CO2/km to 120 g CO2/km). Finally, we consider two electric cars: a Tesla Model 3 with a road efficiency of 150 watt-hours per km (Wh/km), and a highly efficient electric car with an efficiency of 90 Wh/km. The assumed maximum EV efficiency of 90 Wh/km was only achieved under experimental record-setting conditions with a Tesla Model S P100D rolling along at 40 km/hr, yet we assume that this efficiency is attainable at a highway speed of 96 km/hr. We then calculate the associated CO2 emissions per kilometer based on either the California, US average, or WACM grid carbon intensity.
The comparison across our results is, well, hilarious. Even if the gamer’s power demands were met from one of the dirtiest electricity grids in America, the hiker emits far more carbon dioxide in all but one case.
Driving an inefficient ICE vehicle, let’s say a hipster-chic Volkswagen van, the hiker emits thirteen times as much CO2 (57.6 kg) as the video gamer (4.33 kg). A more efficient gas-powered vehicle, perhaps a Subaru Outback, isn’t much better, clocking in at still over ten times the total carbon intensity (46 kg). The various hybrids are still five times as carbon-intensive.
Even driving a Tesla Model 3 charged using California’s relatively-clean grid, the hiker still emits 33% more carbon (5.76 kg total). Only with the record-breaking efficient electric car, at efficiency rates only attained during experimental testing at low speeds, does a California hiker finally manage to emit less carbon (3.46 kg) than the decadent gamer from coal country.
And, if you make the comparison apples-to-apples, matching a California gamer against a California EV-driving hiker or a WACM gamer against a WACM EV-driving hiker, gaming wins by a landslide, with even the extreme-efficiency EV emitting 3.5 times more carbon than the most energy-gobbling gaming equipment.
Biases when it comes to judging activities based on their environmental virtue absolutely carry over to other environment and climate-related debates.
As it turns out, gaming is just about as environmentally sinful as baking desserts. Assuming an average oven wattage of 2400 watts and two hours of active oven usage over an afternoon of baking, a baker would still emit around 1-2 times as much CO2 as a cloud PS4 gamer in the same utility service area that spends four hours glued to their screen. And that’s waiving the baker’s emissions from, say, the 200 watt power consumption of a powered kitchen mixer or the 400 watt power consumption of a food processor (an Xbox One or Playstation 4 draws about 125 watts on average, with a maximum of 300 watts).
The point of all of this is not to spark a climate piety arms race. Yes, one could take an electric bus to a city park instead of driving to that wilderness trail. In which case, the gamer could one-up you by playing a mobile game over a WiFi connection (mobile phones are extremely energy-efficient gaming devices). In response, one might escalate by giving up on outdoor excursions entirely and staying home and reading books, by natural light and candlelight if necessary. Arguing over climate-virtuous pastimes rapidly devolves into absurdity.
It all comes back to cognitive consistency and confirmation bias — predisposed favorability towards things we like, an unfavorable view of things we dislike. An extraterrestrial visitor or AI analyzing social media patterns would rapidly conclude that book reading is a globally agreed-upon badge of solid moral character. We celebrate how a shelf of novels permits the reader to live dozens of lives and travel to all kinds of fantastical alternate universes. Yet, are video games not also artistic, imaginative, even literary journeys in their own right, with unique narrative mechanisms that allow the player to interact directly with the story and even share the experience alongside a friend or two?
The thought that supposedly questionable pastimes like gaming could be more sustainable than environment-celebrating outdoor adventures simply never comes to mind. To even write the headline “Hiking is an environmental nightmare” would feel like violating divine law. Yet the holy pilgrimage to Yosemite in a Subaru filled with outdoor gear is in practice far more deserving of that judgemental label.
There’s a lot to unpack. Many have pointed out, for example, that the traditionally virtuous environmental pursuits are classist, leading to stark disparities in participation based on race and income. Outdoor adventures require specialized knowledge, equipment, and hefty costs of entry. In comparison, video gaming is arguably a highly accessible form of entertainment with remarkably high value per dollar spent. For $20 during a seasonal sale, you can buy a video game that you can sink 300, 500, or 800 hours into.
Biases when it comes to judging activities based on their environmental virtue absolutely carry over to other environment and climate-related debates. Are unspoken assumptions about environmental value and purity entangled within contemporary discussions around small organic farms? Why has biomass energy succeeded in getting classified as a renewable energy source? Are there reasons why most young UK citizens mistakenly believe that nuclear power plants, a clean source of energy, emit CO2 as coal or gas plants do?
These biases have real consequences. For instance, marine conservation nonprofits have spent significant time and resources addressing the relatively minor issue of plastic debris as opposed to more dire threats to marine diversity like illegal fishing, pollution, and invasive species, not to mention ocean acidification and warming. People continue to vastly overestimate the climate and environmental benefits of recycling. In Europe, large coal-fired power plants have quietly switched to burning wood pellets without widespread objection, whereas public opposition and trepidation continue to revolve around keeping existing nuclear plants in service or building new reactors. Motivated reasoning, if it diverts attention from important issues and ideas, can be as damaging as climate denial.
Indeed, the entire subject of carbon footprints is a gleaming example of well-intentioned but unhelpful cognitive bias. Agonizing over what counts as overconsumption misses the point that the key metric of success in climate terms isn’t how many kilowatt-hours of electricity you consume or how many miles you drive, but how many kilograms of CO2 you emit per unit of electricity or kilometer of road. If zero net grams of CO2 are produced in both cases, then one’s relative level of consumption becomes functionally irrelevant.
As Todd Moss and Jacob Kincer explicitly clarified in a piece for Energy for Growth that touched on the energy consumption of video gaming, the discrepancy between the energy consumed by California gamers and the electricity consumed by the average citizen of a developing country “is not an argument that Bitcoin or gaming should stop. Nor should we try to take away air conditioning or festive holiday lighting or your hot tub.” Rather, such disparities point out that many people globally remain unable to access anywhere as much electricity as they ought to be able to.
Instead of motivating conversation around what boundaries define overconsumption — an endeavor that is at best pointless and at worst neo-colonial — current inequalities emphasize how energy must become far more plentiful and accessible around the world. Any worthwhile climate vision should ensure that gamers from Canada to Senegal can game using abundant and cheap clean electricity while simultaneously making it affordable and convenient for avid hikers to own zero-emissions vehicles.
It may not be quite the virtuous imagined future that many would have visualized, but decades from now in a net-zero world, teenagers from all corners of the planet will be able to yell obscenities over voice chat while blowing one another’s virtual characters to bits, with humanity having long relegated any associated worries about carbon to the dustbin of history.