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Why does Ted Cruz think your Xbox is woke?

A new power-saving mode has drawn the attention of right-wing culture warriors

Xbox-X video game console photographed on a dark grey background Photo: Henry Hargreaves for Polygon
Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

There’s a surprising new talking point for American conservative media and politicians: Xbox. On Monday, U.S. senator and former presidential candidate Ted Cruz (R-TX) tweeted, “First gas stoves, then your coffee, now they’re gunning for your Xbox,” linking to an article on right-wing site Blaze News. Within hours, Freedom Caucus member Rep. Troy Nehls (R-TX) had paraphrased Cruz’s tweet (throwing guns in to spice it up a bit); Fox News had run an article with a headline claiming, “Woke brigade is after video games”; and a Fox & Friends host had said, “They’re going after the children!”

What is it that has these culture warriors so exercised? A new “carbon aware” power-saving mode that Microsoft is rolling out for Xbox consoles, along with some changes to their default settings intended to reduce their environmental impact.

Why have conservatives suddenly decided to target Xbox?

There’s never a good answer to this kind of question, although as Cruz’s tweet hints, the Xbox news (which broke two weeks ago) fits into a narrative that the right has been constructing about progressive forces seeking to curtail personal conveniences and comforts amid the climate crisis. In recent weeks, right-wing media and commentators have seized on an academic study into the carbon footprint of coffee and on regulatory concerns about the public health impact of gas stoves. Attacking Microsoft’s new green settings is a convenient way to keep the subject rolling, garlanded with a recognizable brand and some youth-audience appeal.

Also, Cruz is known to be a bit of a gamer, which may help explain him tackling this topic.

What does the ‘carbon aware’ mode do?

Being “carbon aware” means that your Xbox, as long as it has an internet connection, will adjust when it does updates and downloads to times when the local power grid uses the most renewable energy and is least reliant on fossil fuels. It determines the right time by checking regional carbon intensity data online. The carbon-aware mode is on by default, but it works only when a console has been powered down using the Shutdown setting, not Sleep mode. (More about these later.)

Though new to Xbox, carbon awareness is not a brand-new initiative— all Windows 11 updates became carbon aware last year. (Microsoft intends to be carbon negative by 2030, not only in its own operations but through how its products are used.)

Right-wingers have targeted the carbon-aware mode for the same reason that Microsoft chose to headline its news release with it — it has a hip, progressive-sounding name. But in fact, another change Microsoft is making at the same time will have a far bigger environmental impact.

Is Microsoft forcing players to power down their Xboxes?

No — Microsoft isn’t “forcing” anyone to do anything other than accept the “carbon aware” update, which has zero impact on the user experience, as it only affects the timing of downloads and updates when the console is switched off.

However, Microsoft is updating all Xbox consoles to use the Shutdown (aka “energy saving”) setting by default, rather than Sleep. While Sleep mode still exists as an option, people who want to use it will need to go into the settings and reselect it after the update.

Shutdown draws up to 20 times less power than Sleep, so the cumulative power-saving effect of Microsoft moving every Xbox to Shutdown by default is considerable. Even if some users choose to reverse the decision — a minor inconvenience, at worst — this update should have a meaningful impact on the carbon footprint of Xbox gaming worldwide.

What’s the difference between Shutdown and Sleep?

The “degradation” of the user experience in the name of climate politics that conservative culture warriors are complaining about amounts to longer boot times, mostly. According to Microsoft, a console can take up to 45 seconds to boot from Shutdown mode, whereas booting up from Sleep mode is much faster. Also, features that allow the Xbox to be woken remotely or with your voice are no longer available in Shutdown — you have to physically press a button on the Xbox or the controller to turn on the console.

Crucially, the Quick Resume feature that allows games to be picked up exactly where they were left off still works with Shutdown.

Should I leave my Xbox on Shutdown mode?

It’s up to you! But even aside from its impact on the climate emergency, the mode offers considerable power savings that could help reduce your electricity bills during this time of soaring power costs. So it’s a fiscally sensible as well as environmentally responsible option, with only a minor downside — unless you cannot live without remote wake, or you find 45 seconds to be an unbearably long period of time.

Or unless you like paying the power company extra to own the libs.