The gaming industry has exploded in recent years, with the global market expected to reach over $159 billion by 2023. However, as the industry continues to expand, energy consumption continues to skyrocket. Is the gaming industry exacerbating the effects of climate change? 

Both the production and consumption of video games require electricity. As an indie game dev studio, the costs involved in large-scale climate mitigations can be unrealistic. Like many other businesses, small game development studios are beginning to recognise the need to offset their carbon emissions and the emissions of their players to combat climate change. So, many studios turn to tree planting as a solution.

Tree planting is often praised as a solution to help mitigate the effects of climate change caused in no small way by the gaming industry. Most games, even those played online, require a lot of data usage and contribute to the 3.7% of global gas emissions that come from data centres. While it is true that trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping to reduce the number of greenhouse gases in the air, there are other factors to consider when looking at the effectiveness of tree planting as a climate change solution. 

An infographic of how carbon released from factories is absorbed by trees and converted to oxygen

In this blog, I will discuss the realities of tree planting as a climate change solution and the advantages and limitations of planting trees through gameplay and as a way to offset day-to-day emissions. I’ll also talk about other cost-effective ways that Chaos Theory has implemented into its daily practices to help reduce our carbon emissions. To close out, we’ll look at the future of the green gaming industry and how we can make it more sustainable.

Want to know more about the environmental games market at a high-level perspective? Read our latest blog here.

Is the game industry sustainable?

We know that the production and distribution of video games and gaming hardware has a significant carbon footprint. The manufacturing of gaming consoles and personal computers requires the use of energy-intensive processes, such as casting and moulding plastic components. The transportation of these products to retailers and consumers also contributes to emissions.

In addition, the energy consumption of gaming devices themselves can have a significant impact on the environment. In the United States, gaming consoles represent over 2.4% of residential energy consumption, equivalent to running 5 million cars annually. While these consoles have been updated with energy-saving features, many gamers do not use these features. In comparison, the Nintendo Switch sacrificed ultra-high definition graphics for a portable form factor that has the added benefit of a massive increase in energy efficiency.

Two people playing games, on a Nintendo Switch which is an energy efficient game console reducing the environmental impact of gaming.

So when answering the proposed question, at the moment, No. But, we as an industry can work together to improve our processes and offset whatever remains. If you would like a deeper dive into the emissions of the global games industry I can recommend the book, Digital Games After Climate Change by Dr Benjamin Abraham.

On a more uplifting note, here are a few ways in which we as an industry can help to reduce our impact, or even be a net positive to conservation efforts:
  • Developing and promoting games that educate players about environmental issues and inspire them to take action in real life.
  • Utilizing renewable energy sources for game development and distribution.
  • Offsetting carbon emissions from the production and distribution of hardware and software through investment in carbon offset projects.
  • Encouraging sustainable practices among game developers and publishers.
  • Enabling players to plant trees directly through gameplay can be a great way to involve the player and raise ideas about the emissions from games. 
  • Or by investing in and working with companies that offer solutions (such as tree planting).

An important point to note when considering tree planting as a solution to gaming emissions and climate change is that it can take time to ensure that the trees planted will survive and continue to absorb carbon dioxide. 

What are the advantages and limitations of tree planting as a climate change solution?

Tree planting has several advantages as a climate change solution:

  1. Carbon sequestration: Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their biomass, helping to reduce the number of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The average tree can sink 10 kgs of carbon dioxide per year for the first 20 years!
  2. Biodiversity: Trees provide habitats for various plant and animal species, helping promote biodiversity.
  3. Erosion control: Trees can help prevent erosion by holding the soil in place with their roots. With severe deforestation in many places, there is a higher risk of extreme flooding due to rains.
  4. Air quality: Trees can improve air quality by absorbing ozone and particulate matter pollutants
  5. Tangible: Tree planting is one of the most visible goals for people to work towards. As an example, having rewards or achievements in-game leading to real trees being put in the ground sends a stronger message than an abstract message about KGs of carbon that has been offset.
However, tree planting also has some limitations as a climate change solution:
  1. Limited scalability: While tree planting can have a significant impact on a local level, it may not be enough to address the global scale of climate change. Even if every person planted one tree a year, leading to 8 billion new trees (granted they survive to maturity), it would still only offset 3% to 20% of carbon dioxide emitted. This would also require around 32,000 square kilometres of land (approximately the size of Belgium) to be planted and protected, every single year!
  2. Maintenance: To remain healthy and absorb carbon dioxide effectively, many trees require ongoing maintenance, such as watering and pruning.
  3. Pests and Invasive species: When trees are planted in a monoculture, and especially when the species isn’t native to the area, tree planting can lead to pests or introduce invasive species that can harm local ecosystems.
  4. Limited area: Trees can only be planted on land not currently being used for other purposes, such as agriculture or urban development.
  5. Longevity of the tree: Not all trees will survive, and some areas can see massive areas of die-off. Forest fires may wipe out an area, diseases and pests can kill trees, or trees may be cut down for timber. All of these outcomes can prevent a forest from sequestering carbon.

This is why working with reputable companies is essential when considering tree planting as a solution. You can work with many reputable global companies, such as The Arbor Foundation, One Tree Planted, or Trees for the Future. A good example of a successful tree-planting initiative is One Trillion Trees, a global effort launched by the World Economic Forum. It is intended to protect and restore natural biodiversity through reforestation efforts from governments, NGOs, companies and individuals. Currently, there are 34 companies and 60 countries that have pledged 3.6 billion trees around the world. The Institute for Ecological Research ran another successful reforestation project called the Black Lion Tamarin Reforestation Programme. The programme successfully restored 1,000 hectares of the Atlantic Forest and replenished over 1,800 of the black Tamarin species. It also worked with and educated local communities to ensure a lasting positive impact.

Focusing more on games and tree planting, studios like Confident Games are working with Trees for the Future to plant trees for each game or game expansion players buy. Even bigger companies like Sony have included a trophy in their popular title Horizon Forbidden West that, when unlocked, plants a tree for the player. At Chaos Theory Games, we have worked with Carbon Neutral for our game Bleached Az, a mobile game that promotes ocean conservation. We have donated 20% of the game's profits to Carbon Neutral's ‘Plant a Tree Program’, with the added option of players buying a tree from within the game.

examples of games and game companies that are planting trees as a solution to climate change

However, for every successful initiative, there are projects with good intentions that fail due to poor planning. For example, Turkey’s Breath of the Future initiative succeeded in its campaign to plant 11 million trees in 2019, with some cities setting a world record. But the initiative largely failed due to most saplings dying out in under a year. This was due to the lack of rain needed for these saplings to survive. You should also research and see which local companies offer simple tree-planting initiatives.

When looking into tree planting initiatives, ensure they follow the 10 golden rules of reforestation
The ten rules of reforestation as published in The Global Change Biology Review
Source: Ten golden rules for reforestation to optimize carbon sequestration, biodiversity recovery and livelihood benefits

What actions are we taking at Chaos Theory Games to be environmentally conscious?

We at Chaos Theory Games are working with the amazing people at The Eden Project through the app Evergreen, which I’ll explain in more detail below. As an indie game studio, it has always been important to us and our vision to be environmentally friendly and make games promoting a sustainable and climate-conscious lifestyle.
  • Being more energy conscious: Our office space in the city houses our team of 20 people. We can manage our energy consumption by using an auto-shutoff timer for our lights, air conditioning, and low-energy bulbs. We have continued to make small steps to be more energy efficient as an office space and will invest in technology that allows us to do so.
  • Purchasing renewable energy from our provider: Being a game studio, we rely heavily on multiple computers and gaming devices. Switching to renewable energy from our electric provider was a very easy decision that drastically reduced our office emissions. This cost us slightly more, but when compared to overall operating expenses, the cost is negligible. 
  • Hybrid working for our employees: During COVID, we realised the benefits of offering a hybrid workplace. We have embedded those practices, which have helped move us towards our sustainability goals. We have a policy that limits flying for work, and we choose to hold many of our meetings and client presentations over Zoom.
  • Offsetting our carbon footprint: We have chosen to offset our remaining emissions through tree planting. We have partnered with the Evergreen app, a peer-to-peer recognition app that plants trees to reward good company culture. Evergreen is connected with the Eden Reforestation Project, which works with local communities and villages to reforest large areas and protect and sustain them. We have planted over 2,500 trees and offset 224280.00 kgs of cO2 emissions.
A comparison of how many trees it takes to sequester the carbon of twenty eight houses

What does the future of the gaming industry look like?

The future of the green gaming industry will likely involve a focus on sustainable practices, such as using renewable energy sources, energy-efficient hardware and software, and reducing waste. 

There will be some challenges to overcome, such as the increased energy consumption from virtual reality and other technologies that allow for immersive gaming experiences. VR headsets consume a lot more energy than other gaming devices. The Metaverse (a single shared online digital world) is also predicted to consume a lot more energy than the current internet, possibly even 1,000 times more!

While the Metaverse might consume a lot more energy, there could be large offsets from swapping out physical activities for digital ones. Examples of this would include international business meetings or many types of training simulations.

As technology continues to improve, it will be possible to create more energy-efficient hardware that is manufactured and delivered entirely on renewable energy, which will vastly reduce the environmental impact of gaming. Regarding the business model, digital distribution and a shift towards subscription-based services will reduce waste from physical media and packaging. The game industry could also invest in researching and developing more sustainable materials for its products and packaging (because everyone loves a physical collectors edition, right?).

In packaging, companies like SI have already started to make the shift to recyclable materials. Their title ‘Football Manager’ comes in a completely recyclable package, which has also lowered the game's price overall. Their parent company Sega Europe followed suit for all their PC titles. Fans and players could see this as an incentive to advocate for more companies to make the push for recyclable packaging materials. 

Some companies in the gaming industry are taking steps to address their carbon footprint. For example, Microsoft (the parent company of Xbox) has committed to being carbon negative by 2030 and has pledged to remove more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits. The company has also pledged to become entirely powered by renewable energy by 2025. In doing so, it has also updated its latest Xbox consoles to have vastly improved energy efficient settings such as ‘Carbon Aware’ in which the system will access data from nearby power suppliers and can tell the player when the console can run on the greenest energy available. 

There are also not-for-profit organisations in liaison with the UN, such as the Playing for the Planet Alliance. Many studios and companies within the gaming industry have joined the alliance to pledge to a global environmental agenda. The companies must make efforts to be carbon-negative and climate positive and share their impacts with the public as part of the alliance. This helps to increase transparency and fosters advocacy for environmental change within existing audiences.

A loop on how the game industry can be achieve sustainable production practices
Source: The Playing for the Planet Alliance Impact Report 2019

Another way forward for green gaming is the introduction and advocacy for eco games. Recently the studio UsTwo introduced its title ‘Alba: A wildlife Adventure’ with very strong environmental and ecological messages. But the studio took it further by partnering with Count Us In, a 16-step program that encourages people to take action in their daily lives to help the environment. The company is also said to have one of the most successful tree planting initiatives, by planting one tree for each copy of the game sold - which is now over 1 million!


The future of gaming is sustainable

Overall, tree planting is one of the many ways to help mitigate the effects of climate change. An indie game development studio can make a difference by raising awareness and encouraging players and employees to take action. I listed some ways we offset carbon emissions. I also went into the potential of the green gaming industry to achieve a negative carbon position and some of the initiatives being championed by the gaming industry as a whole.

A game controller cut out filled with different types of leaves and plants

It is important to remember that tree planting is not an end-all solution and needs to be part of a larger strategy that focuses on reducing emissions, protecting biodiversity, and increasing the resilience of ecosystems. While it isn’t the solution, it is still a major player in the fight against climate change, has a range of other benefits, and it is one of the few solutions many companies are offering right now. 

Every solution, whether it's lobbying for widespread change, or just investing in tree planting, every step moves us towards a better future!