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Digital or physical? The case for the environmental impact of our gaming

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As an Ecologist by profession, I’m always fascinated by the idea of how I can lessen the negative impacts of my lifestyle on the environment with little to no effort on my part.

Simple alterations in habits or consumer options for my hobbies, without affecting the core of those habits and hobbies I love so much, can over time add up to a lower carbon footprint – allowing me to enjoy the same lifestyle and feel even better about it.

As Internet speed and efficiency continues to improve, and hardware improves alongside it, we’re seeing digital stores on consoles receive more widespread use. We’ve already seen digital gaming open up a whole new wealth of opportunities and markets for the PC platform. Independent games have soared in popularity over the last half-decade, spurred on by the relative ease of online game distribution compared to physical game distribution.

Larger titles that are still a long way from being considered "Triple A", a market that was feared dead towards the end of the last console generation, are finding success through digital platforms — Cities: Skylines being the most recent example, developed by a team of 13 and selling over a million copies at time of writing. Even EA recently reported that 49% of its revenue came from digital sales during their last financial quarter.

Digital gaming has become, by far, the most popular method of purchase for the PC market. Stores like Steam, Origin, Good Old Gaming, Green Man Gaming, and numerous others are all able to sell games to consumers at fantastic prices, without the need to leave home, and provide additional quality-of-life benefits such as removing the need to disc-swap between games, and the ability to preload a game before release and play from midnight on launch day.

Game developers and publishers receive higher profit margins from these digital sales, with the costs incurred from printing, packaging, and global distribution removed from the equation. It’s these reasons that are often cited as the key benefits of digital gaming over buying physical copies, but I feel there’s another important benefit that is often overlooked.

Eco-Friendly Gaming

When development on a video game wraps up, the product is forwarded on for the manufacturing process. A master disc is created, then replicated for each physical copy of the game required. Discs are then transferred to the printing line for artwork, and then to the assembly packaging line. Discs are placed into their plastic boxes with paper covers and (if the publisher is feeling generous) paper instruction booklets, then packed into cardboard cartons, stacked on wooden pallets, and secured with film wrap.

Games are then distributed across the world, flown, shipped, and trucked, to numerous warehouses along the way to each retail store, which consumers then drive to, collect, and return home with.

That’s a lot of energy! All that printing and packaging. All that transportation. All removed from the equation when you buy digitally. If you purchase online, the game’s files are simply delivered across the Internet to your hard drive. Once you’ve finished with a game, digital titles can simply be erased from the hard drive, whereas Blu-ray discs need to be either landfilled or incinerated due to the absence of domestic recycling options for them.

A (not so) Detailed Study

A paper published in 2014 titled The Carbon Footprint of Games Distribution, by Mayers and colleagues, aimed to analyze the impact of a game’s entire lifecycle (including the environmental impact of the development process, and the hours spent playing by the end consumer), and compare the environmental impact of buying physically to digitally.

Should a consumer purchase a single game and make no other use of their journey, there is no environmental benefit to buying at retail over digital.

The study found that for games under 8.8GB in size digital purchases were the most environmentally friendly option, but for larger games the size of the download (and increased energy use as a result) led to buying at retail being the better option. With modern game sizes averaging around 16GB, and some reaching as high as 50GB, this would seem to be a damning report for the environmental impact of digital games, however…

The 2014 report relied on Internet energy data from 2010 (which becomes as much as twice as efficient every two years), using a PlayStation 3 as the only console for testing (a console notorious for not being able to download games in standby mode), and using electricity figures from the original 2007 model of the PlayStation 3. Not only did that console’s 2009 slim redesign almost halve the electricity consumption to around 70 watts whilst idle, today’s PlayStation 4 consumes a mere 8.5 watts in rest mode.

Compared to the study’s 137 watts for a 2007 model PS3 that needs to remain switched on to download games, switching your PS4 into an 8.5 watt rest mode to download games leads to a considerable reduction in energy consumption!

The report also assumes the average homeowner has 1.5 routers consuming electricity, that the distance to drive to a store for physical games is 6.4 miles, that shoppers will not be traveling exclusively to purchase a game, but will also purchase nine other items to lessen the impact of their travel.

Should a consumer only purchase a single game and make no other use of their journey, there is no discernible environmental benefit to buying at retail over digital. All that mileage traveled for a single game decimates any eco-advantage over the electricity consumption of a game download. (Quite an impact if a couple of million gamers do this for a major video game release...) The report also notes that all carbon equivalent emissions incurred through physical production and distribution will be tripled in the United States – relying on far more heart-warming European emissions.

So, if you live in the EU, game on a PS3, own multiple routers in your home, and live close to your nearest video game retailer, buy physical copies if you want to be eco-friendly!

Otherwise, perhaps consider buying digitally in the future?

Saving in Standby

One of the most useful features of the new console generation is the amount of customization we have over standby modes. There are various options in the PS4’s Settings menu that allows users to customize the Rest Mode functions. One of the most interesting power saving features is related to USB charging.

Disabling that function reduces the 8.5 watt rest mode to around a 5.5 watt rest mode, and if you still want to charge controllers overnight a recent update sets the console to automatically disable usb charging after 3 hours of entering rest mode. Neat!

The Xbox One has been repeatedly called out for its higher 12.5 watt rest mode, largely due to the Kinect "always listening" for its owner to ask the console to be switched on. Although Microsoft refuses to ship American consoles with this feature disabled by default (like it does in most countries around the world) you can still choose to disable this feature yourself if you find yourself usually using the controller to switch on your console — almost halving the energy consumption.

Of course, by far the most beneficial method for energy saving is to simply power down your consoles completely when they’re not in use, dropping their energy consumption below a single watt. If you’re not downloading something or charging a controller while you’re away or asleep, do you really want to spend money as your console drains energy for no purpose?

The Curious Case of P.T.

Konami have recently raised fears over the ease at which publishers can remove digital games from our online libraries, deleting a popular free demo for reasons that still don’t seem completely clear. Is this a future we can come to expect?

Luckily, not at all. Last year the EU passed new reforms to the Consumer Rights Directive, preventing exactly this event from occurring with paid games. Unless a publisher specifically states that a game is being provided for a limited time (such as an online game like Destiny, or World of Warcraft) before it goes on sale, it must make that game available for download to all paying customers.

The only thing protecting them with P.T. is the fact that it was a free title. If they pulled this stunt with a paid title, they’d likely lose the court case before it even began.

It seems America doesn’t have similar digital regulations in place yet, so now might be a good time to get a petition going. If you can get your government to issue an official response on a petition to build the Death Star, then hopefully you can get them to update their consumer protection laws for a modern age.

We’re also seeing a lot of digital limitations being challenged. Many gamers love the freedom of sharing their physical games with friends, and see that restriction with digital games as a big sticking point. The PS4’s recent game sharing feature is a fantastic step in the right direction, allowing you to share any of your games with a friend over an Internet connection.

Fears over the lifespan of digital games are also being allayed, as stores such as Good Old Games sell DRM-free titles that are almost impossible to get hold of through physical means, and console stores like the PlayStation Network continue to grow their libraries. Games that were purchased digitally for the PlayStation Portable are widely available to be re-downloaded on a PlayStation Vita at no extra cost.

Cross-buy titles provide even further incentives, allowing players to buy a game on one platform and having it available for free on others, and unlike physical products there’s no fear of losing or damaging any of these games.

Even The Internet Archive has begun embracing the digital format as a method of preserving video game history, allowing you to emulate older games through your browser. The lifespan of digital games are clearly set to outlive physical games, and the fears of "server shutdowns" are falling by the wayside as consumer protection laws are updated as preventative measures.

So while there are still some downsides to buying digitally, even if there is a large environmental upside, they are steadily being addressed as digital consumption becomes more popular.

Balancing love with responsibility

For me, gaming is important. It’s a hobby I’ll always value. But I also aim to ensure that I enjoy my hobbies as environmentally responsibly as possible. We’ve known for a while now that console developers are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of being environmentally responsible, and this push for consoles that can run in energy-efficient standby modes while they download games is a fantastic example of the benefits of newer consoles.

For me, gaming is important.

Ultimately, it’s up to each user to decide how far out of their way they should go to lessen the environmental impacts of their lifestyle. But there are a lot of alterations you can make to reduce the energy consumption of your hobby without any significant impact on your gaming. Dig into those settings menus, check out the energy saving options, and perhaps consider buying more of your games digitally in the future?

You’re not only improving the profits of the developers and publishers, helping to increase the potential audience for independent developers and smaller-budget games, and gaining access to pre-load options and a disc-swap free world, you’re also helping to lower the impact your hobby has on the environment.