What effect do video games have on climate change?

Next level: the climate-changing potential embedded in the immersive world of video games

When independent studio Paper House released its award-winning video game Paperbark in 2018, players initially delighted at the game’s storybook illustrations and soundtrack of birdsong and rustling leaf litter.

It’s a water-coloured ramble through the Australian bush, pitched at players of all ages. The game unfolds like an interactive picture book as a wombat protagonist explores, collecting native flowers and insects, then seeks shelter when a bushfire threatens its home.

A year after Paperbark’s release, in the summer of 2019-20, real-world calamity struck, entirely changing how people responded to the game. Australia’s Black Summer bushfires burned 24 million hectares, caused 33 deaths and killed or injured 3 billion animals, including an estimated 1.1 million wombats.

“The mentality fully shifted – because we had a really heavily climate-driven disaster,” says Paper House’s creative director Terry Burdak.

Screenshot of video game showing drawing of wombat encountering dragonfly
Paperbark game. Credit: Image provided by Paper House.

Before the fires, players had been happily sharing screenshots of wombat antics on games platform Steam. In the aftermath, they were worrying for the animal’s safety, and questioning whether the game should come with content warnings.

Burdak describes himself as an environmentalist and wants more action on climate change. He had planned to weave some commentary on the issue into the studio’s forthcoming release Wood & Weather, a game inspired by the wild ride of living through Melbourne’s seasons. But with the fires, and the devastating floods along the east coast of Australia over the past several months, he’s treading carefully.

“We really wanted humour to be such a part of the game, but it is also important that we tackle it in a sensitive way, because people are losing lives and their livelihoods,” he says.

Burdak and Paper House are not alone wrestling with these concerns. The video games industry is beginning to grapple with how to acknowledge the reality of catastrophic climate change within a medium that seeks to lure players in, not frighten them away.

Terry burdak stands outside glass doors labelled paper house
Terry Burdak outside Paper House. Credit: Photo by Petra Stock

And beyond the narratives within the games themselves is the vast cloud of emissions hanging over the whole enterprise. With an estimated reach of 3 billion players globally, climate-charged alliances are forming, hoping to leverage the creative potential of video games for positive action. These enlist the virtual paradigm as a gateway to build knowledge and skills needed for real-world change.

Experts say while designing games to help the planet is a noble impulse, the industry must also do more to clean up its own act, by addressing its direct emissions – estimated at up to 15 million tonnes annually – as well as the preponderance of indirect climate pollution that flows from distributing, streaming, and playing games.

Game designer Paula Escuadra co-founded the now thriving “special interest group” on climate within the International Game Developers Association in late 2020. It’s a grassroots effort that complements the Playing for the Planet Alliance, a United Nations Environment Programme initiative where the CEOs of major platforms and games companies are committing to climate action.

The group provides an accessible hub for people at all levels within the games industry – including “over 450 game developers, game design professors, students, researchers, climate activists who love games” – to work together on climate action. They collaborate on everything from improving energy efficiency and the uptake of renewable power to integrating climate-positive messages and skills into game design.

Escuadra says many people who work in video games are deeply concerned about the climate crisis, but find the sustainability movement overwhelming, and sometimes unwelcoming. It’s a feeling driven by fear and vulnerability that comes with recognising that they may be part of the problem, she says.

“One of the challenges that we have when helping game developers and players basically wake up to their own power and the potential that they have to create positive change, is that sustainability often has the narrative of ‘you have done something wrong’,” she says.

“Games are really powerful in that they not only create a sense of play and curiosity, but they redefine our relationship with failure… many games will put us in a situation as a player facing this big, seemingly insurmountable, existential threat that could end the world – and put us in a situation where we can do something about it.”

“The mentality fully shifted – because we had a really heavily climate-driven disaster.”

Terry Burdak

For Escuadra personally, games have been transformative in reframing her sense of agency on environmental issues. She says the scuba-diving exploration game Abzu by Giant Squid Studios made her realise there are many different ways of taking action. In the game, players dive through coral reefs, deep ocean, shallow waters and seaweed groves to a soaring orchestral score.

“I won’t spoil it,” she says. “But there’s this underlying narrative of what happens when we examine our relationship with technology and reconnect with nature.”

The potential cultural influence of video games is huge, Escuadra says. Although, she adds, using games to promote environmental attitudes and behaviours is “a lot of art and not a lot of science right now”.

The climate special interest group recently published a playbook for climate or environmental games drawing on environmental psychology and game design research. It details approaches and case studies based around four factors: knowledge, attitude, efficacy and hope.

The challenge is to embed messaging and tactics that are both effective and engaging for players. So that, “a player is able to get a sense of what a certain problem is, have perceived self-efficacy – a confidence and understanding of how to address the problem, and the willingness to do it”, Escuadra says.

The key, she says, “is having it actually transfer from the game to the real world – such that the player comes out of that game, more environmentally conscious, aware, and ready to engage their peers and community to become more environmentally active”.

More on video games: Good games

“Every part of society should be part of this conversation,” says author and climate communication researcher Dr Rebecca Huntley. She sees a role for video games in offering a positive, liveable vision of the future and developing the skills needed to address climate change.

“I don’t necessarily think that having games that present a climate change apocalyptic landscape are helpful,” she says. “I do think there are skills that we all need as human beings to survive and to thrive in a climate altered landscape, that are around collaboration, resilience, connection between the human world and the natural environment, and adaptability.

“And so games that would feature the benefits of those kinds of skills are really important.”

While Huntley says she’s not much of a gamer, she vividly recalls getting a taste of gaming’s deeper potential in her 20s when she played the empire-building sim Civilisation by Firaxis Games for 12 hours straight. “I think I ate potato chips all day,” she says. “My hand formed a little claw around the mouse.”

Already politically engaged at the time, Huntley says she did learn something from that experience.

“I had the ultimate power, determined to create this perfect society, and it was impossible,” she says. “By the 12th hour, the whole thing burned down to the ground. And I was happy to see it burn.

“I realised that, even though I thought I was a really benevolent, smart and thoughtful dictator, I really needed all these other people to help me build this society. And actually, I realised that the only good leadership is leadership by collaboration.”

“Games redefine our relationship with failure.”

Paula Escuadra

For Dr Ben Abraham, photo-realistic military game Arma 3 by Bohemia Interactive is one that offers “a seductive, positive vision” of a future world, albeit one at war. The game is set in the mid 2030s with renewable energy installations like wind turbines and solar farms forming part of its landscape.

When Abraham started working on his recently published book Digital Games After Climate Change,he initially focused on the potential for video games to influence and change people’s minds. Yet the more he researched, the more his attention turned towards the material impacts of the industry.

“How much carbon is the games industry emitting? No one knows. No one knew, especially back in like 2015, 2016,” he says.

Abraham’s book presents the first ballpark figures on the climate impact of the video games industry, pieced together from survey data provided by large and small game development studios.

“I break it down into the different moments in the chain of production,” he says. “From making a game at the initial stages, to getting that game into players’ hands through distribution, and then the emissions from players themselves when they play games, which is very, very likely to be the largest part of the picture.”

Abraham estimates the global games industry’s direct emissions – those due to the electricity used by programmers, artists and producers, working on high powered computers and company servers – could range anywhere up to 15 million tonnes a year, roughly equivalent to the annual national emissions of Slovenia.

Abraham says these emissions are the first thing studios can and should address, especially as most emissions result from electricity use. “It could be turned into renewables pretty quickly; it’s not an insurmountable challenge,” he says.

Those direct emissions are dwarfed however by the greenhouse gasses that flow indirectly as a result of distributing games (by shipping discs or digital downloads), streaming games (via data centres) and playing them (on smartphones, tablets, consoles and PCs), all much harder to quantify.

A sense of scale can be gleaned from the sustainability reports of Microsoft and Sony.

Multinational technology company Microsoft – which manufactures the Xbox console, owns popular game Minecraft and runs Azure data centres, along with a host of other business activities beyond the realm of video games – reports that 97% of the company’s overall greenhouse gas pollution comes from indirect sources. These indirect emissions, sometimes referred to as Scope 3, come from its supply chain or as a result of consumers using its products.

For its direct emissions and electricity use, Microsoft aims to reach 100% renewable energy by 2025 and ‘negative emissions’ by 2030. It aims to halve its Scope 3 emissions – such as those flowing from distributing, streaming and playing games – within a decade.

“How much carbon is the games industry emitting? No one knows.”

Dr Ben Abraham

Sony, which makes the PlayStation console and other entertainment devices, reports that Scope 3 makes up around 92% of its overall greenhouse gas emissions, the largest contributor being the energy consumed by the use of televisions, game consoles and other devices in homes and businesses globally.

Sony and Microsoft are among 42 games companies, platforms and associations in the Playing for the Planet Alliance. Most are participating in the program’s annual Green Game Jam, where developers integrate environmental themes into popular games; meanwhile 12 members have committed to become net zero or carbon negative by 2030.

Industry body for Australia and New Zealand, the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association, has also joined the alliance.

Ben Au, the association’s director of policy and government affairs, says the industry’s climate change consciousness is really only a few years old. He says that means there’s a lot to do, both to reduce the sector’s emissions and make the most of the opportunity to use games to influence or educate.

Screenshot of video game showing wombat walking through forest
Paperbark game. Credit: Image provided by Paper House

Games are increasingly embedded in everyday life, particularly for younger people, says Au. A survey of 1200 Australian households commissioned by the association found around two-thirds of Australians played video games for an average of 83 minutes a day.

He says games are what children love to talk about in the playground. When asked what they want to do when they grow up, he says, many will say YouTuber or streamer. In part that’s because “the current generation of young parents, they grew up with games, they understand it”.

“You don’t have to look far to see evidence of people who have been impacted by games,” Abraham says. In large part that’s because games form communities; they provide a space for people to socialise.

“That’s what a lot of younger people do – games are their hangout space. You know, they don’t go to the mall anymore and hang out after school, they log on to Fortnite, and then they jump on Discord and chat.”

In his book, Abraham acknowledges it may seem trivial to be concerned with what climate change means for a leisure industry like video games, particularly in the face of more serious disruptions.

But he writes: “Bringing the climate crisis ‘home’ to all of our lives, all of our workplaces, all of our hobbies, is the necessary first step in acting to reverse climate [change].”

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