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Untangling the carbon complexities of the video gaming industry

A new report commissioned in support of the Playing for the Planet alliance outlines best practice guidelines for the industry when calculating their carbon emissions – as well as ten steps gamers can take to reduce the carbon impact of playing.

The report, authored by the Carbon Trust, follows a twelve-month dialogue with ten video games companies to explore their current approaches with the aim of trying to address the ambiguity as to how the video gaming industry applies and interprets frameworks for carbon accounting. Games industry trade association Ukie provided support in scoping the initial project outline and facilitating engagement with the wider games industry.

The report will also be supported by a free informative webinar with Sam Barratt, Chief Youth, Education & Advocacy at UNEP and Co-Founder of Playing for the Planet and Matt Anderson, Senior Consultant at The Carbon Trust and author of the report.

The main findings of the report are:

1) All studios should measure their emissions, this report will help:  The guide offers practical guidance to help video game businesses understand the landscape of scope 3 reporting and get up to speed on carbon accounting so they can measure their emissions and prevent them from happening in the first place. 

2) Set ambitious climate targets aligned with 1.5° C: Once businesses have measured their emissions, set an ambitious science-based target to bring the studio into alignment with the Paris Agreement goals.  

3) Engage your players to act: The report offers ten steps that players can take to make an impact, including checking their gaming set up so they can play with the carbon volume turned down and make climate action part of the conversation.

4) Learn from others: Join networks where you can learn and share best practice and be part of a community of climate action. 

Lead author of the report, Matt Anderson of the Carbon Trust said: “Video games are unique in that they combine interactive storytelling, artistic expression and the latest technologies to create fun, challenging and engaging experiences. All of this combines to make a complex landscape for video game businesses to understand and apply carbon accounting frameworks in a critical first step towards taking climate action. We hope that this report serves as a helpful way for businesses to level up to hit speed and scale in their climate action goals with players also engaged on this agenda."

The report found that the bulk of scope 3 emissions are either in purchased goods and services (e.g., data centres, subcontractors) or energy used by video game products, which combined often make up the majority of a video game company’s total carbon emissions. 

Accounting for the energy use of video game software was found to be a point of uncertainty, so video game companies should apply the relevancy principle to evaluate how to treat these emissions (referred to as category 11). If not already included in a company’s footprint, at a minimum, these emissions should be reported separately.

With these findings, the report adds emerging clarity on where boundaries in the industry stop and start, and a new carbon calculator for Alliance members will now be commissioned to test and use before offering it more widely for use within the industry. 

When it comes to reporting emissions, the report has the following three requests of video game businesses so that it is easier to have a broader picture of emissions within the industry:

  1. Reporting consistency: apples and apples: Video game businesses should consider reporting results in a consistent manner, such as by GHG Protocol scope 3 category, and using consistent methodologies to support tracking performance over time. Trying to get a clear picture on emissions within the industry is hard when reporting methodologies have such differences.
  2. Go granular and hit the unit level: While in many cases this already happens, getting more granular results by business unit or service (e.g., cloud streaming) would unlock more accurate benchmarking and insight for action. 
  3. Transparency and completeness: Video game companies should clearly document the methodology, data sources, assumptions and boundaries for each category. They should also include the rationale for categories that are excluded or not reported.

The paper acknowledges that action on this for businesses can be complex and not straight-forward, particularly for small-medium size studios who have limited bandwidth and expertise. This is born out in the fact that only 12 out of the 222 video game businesses analysed have set or committed to a science-based target, with the main barrier being a lack of certainty and solutions on how to measure carbon emissions and also that most studios are small-medium and don’t have the in-house sustainability expertise. 

That said, 56% of players say that the video gaming industry has a responsibility to act on global warming, while 45% of players think the industry should be doing more, the hope is that reports like these and initiatives like Playing for the Planet, which is facilitated by the UN Environment Programme, can accelerate further leadership. To support this, a masterclass webinar outlining how studios can act on this will be set up on November 21st.

This report acknowledges that it hasn't tackled everything and that there is more to be done. It offers a set of ideas for further exploration which include: 

  1. Advertising: Advertising and marketing activities are often estimated to make a significant contribution to video game businesses’ carbon footprint. A closer look at the significance of these activities alongside engagement opportunities with advertising and marketing partners to improve data collection and discuss decarbonisation opportunities is needed.
  2. Next generation console design: Design for future console generations last for up to eight years and when they arrive on the marketplace, they can effectively lock-in power and energy profiles for close to a decade. It is recommended for industry stakeholders to work closely on next generation console design and development to ensure environmental performance and industry decarbonisation goals are considered. 
  3. Role of video game engines: Video game engines have significant influence over the trajectory of video games and video game development. Exploring the custodial role that video game engines can play in stewarding the mitigation of emissions upstream in the value chain with the communities that build video games should be explored. 
  4. Emerging technologies: Promising new technologies offer innovative ways to develop and play video games. Further study into the carbon impact of these technologies, including cloud gaming, AI, blockchain and 8K, is recommended to understand the role these technologies will play in achieving net-zero emissions in video gaming. 

Download your copy here