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Video games aren’t synonymous with climate change and environmental impact, but as the world’s fastest growing entertainment industry, its relationship with nature is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Here, we speak to UNEP Chief of Youth Education and Advocacy, and Playing for the Planet Alliance Founder, Sam Barratt, about the games industry’s responsibility to minimise its environmental impact, and its role in the fight to save our planet.

Since the turn of the millennium, gaming’s global market revenue increased from $43bn to around $164bn in 2020. Today, it is worth more than the film and music industries combined.  

But with the likes of mammoth open-world and other highly immersive games becoming the go-to for studios looking to captivate audiences, the energy needed to feed such beasts has increased too.

Gaming uses around 34 terawatt hours of electricity per year – the carbon equivalent of five million cars. Combine this with the petroleum-based production of gaming hardware, the plastic waste those products create, and the immense power required to support data centres and infrastructural networks across the world – and the environmental impact of gaming becomes clear. 

Increasingly, the gaming industry is recognising the impact it is having and around the world, work is being done not only to reduce the environmental damage of video games, but also to use them as a tool to combat the climate crisis.    

Inspiring change on a global scale

Sam Barratt is the Chief of Youth, Education and Advocacy at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Before working with the UNEP, he held notable positions in several prominent organisations. As Head of Communications at 1GOAL, Sam worked alongside then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on a major education project to get millions of children into school. 

During his time spent as Head of Media at Oxfam, he began to realise the power and potential of using interactive and emerging mediums as a tool to inspire change on a global scale. 

 “We were constantly thinking about how to use creative forms of communication to educate and inform,” he explains

“This drew me to gaming. Its reach and attention are unprecedented. I wanted to explore what could be done with what is probably the most powerful medium in the world.”

In 2019, before the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, Sam - who heads a number of UNEP environmental education initiatives - and his then-colleague Trista Patterson co-founded the UN’s Playing for the Planet Alliance.  

The Alliance was launched off the back of an impact report the pair had worked on, which examined the relationship between video gaming and climate change.  

 “The video games industry is often criticised for things that happen in the world that it may or may not be responsible for. We wanted to give studios a chance to change the narrative – to tell a different story,” Sam explains. 

The UNEP Playing for the Planet Alliance initially launched with 21 studios, among them gaming MVPs like Microsoft, Sony and Ubisoft. 

Sam, who also works on environmental programmes with the Girl Guides and World Scout Movement, stresses the role of the Alliance is facilitate leadership within the gaming industry on this agenda rather than to formally dictate the way studios within it operate. 

“Playing for the Planet is an accelerant to give guidance and encouragement to help the industry make better judgements,” he explains. 

“Take Sony for example – they were already doing great things in terms of emissions and efficiency, but we knocked on the door and said, ‘but what more can you do?’”

Within a year, Sony cut its estimated carbon emissions by 17.5 million tonnes. It built an array of energy saving features into its PS5 system and developed a PS4 game which educated children about their carbon footprint and the damage climate change has around the world. 

Finding new solutions to the climate crisis

Whether it’s lowering emissions, boosting efficiency or reducing plastic production and waste, Playing for the Planet’s influence is already making an impact. But, according to Sam, “That’s kind of the easy part that simply needs to be ticked off and done, so we’ll take this on next year.”

Beyond this, Sam is confident that being a fast-paced industry made up of innovative minds, gaming will find new solutions to the climate crisis.  Solutions he hopes can influence other entertainment and white goods industries to overcome their own environmental battles. 

For Sam, the true potential of gaming lies not just in its ability to reduce the damage it has on the planet, but to harness the power games hold to inspire change and avert climate catastrophe.  

“The gaming industry reaches an audience of 2.7 billion people every day,” he explains. “We want the industry to be aware of the enormous potential it has to change the way people think about nature and the environment.” 

Already throughout the industry, there are examples of games doing this.

Through immersive simulations, gamers are able to explore life at the deepest parts of the ocean or navigate their way through not-so-distant futures where the world has already succumbed to environmental devastation. 

Through meaningful interactions like these, Sam hopes players can be educated and inspired to change their behaviour and play their part in protecting the planet every player calls home. 

Anyone in doubt of the power and influence that video games possess, need only cast their minds back to 2011. After nearly a decade of trying and failing to reconstruct the protein structure that helps HIV multiply, biochemists turned to the gaming community. They released a game named ‘Foldit’. Within 10 days, players solved the problem that had bewildered scientists and super computers for years.  

Sam is optimistic that as well as finding solutions to the climate crisis, the emotional impact video games deliver will help instigate a cultural shift among global audiences. 

He says: “Playing for the Planet is doing a lot of work around restoration and conservation at the moment. We’re trying to work out how games can be used to amplify the awe of nature in a way that inspires players to retain and restore it.

“Trees and nature are already a massive part of the backdrop of so many games. For this year’s Green Game Jam, we’ve been working with studios to think about how we bring nature to the foreground.

“We want to capture players’ imaginations and show them nature is something worth fighting for.” 

Sam continues: “We’re at a tipping point with nature right now. There is a thin green covering that protects our planet and sustains everything on it. If we keep drawing down on that covering, the dystopian games we play through our screens could become our reality.”

Ultimately, the gaming industry is akin to many others in having an opportunity to reduce its impact on the planet. Yet through its reach and influence, gaming is completely unique in its ability to instigate cultural change and completely shift the narrative around the climate crisis. 

Saving the world from catastrophe is no longer just a mission for avatars we control through our consoles. It’s everyone’s mission, there are no checkpoints, and game over is not an option.

Key takeaways:  

  • The energy consumption and waste associated with the creation and distribution of video games make the gaming industry a major contributor to climate change.
  • The UNEP Playing for the Planet Alliance is working with gaming studios from all over the world to minimise the negative impact the gaming industry has on the environment, while thinking about ways games can be used to raise awareness and encourage players to fight for the future of our planet.
  • The META Games Industry Index is a campaign powered by UMi, with the support of Ukie. The index highlights and celebrates the creativity, innovation, job creating and positive social impact of the games industry across the UK.
Ashleigh Smith
Article by Ashleigh Smith
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