Gaming uses more energy than ever, but you don't need to stop playing

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Credit: ©Sultan Sushi - Dja region
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We all love gaming, but that doesn't mean it's necessarily the most sustainable hobby of all. Big, energy-gorging monitors and power-hungry consoles can take their toll on our planet. Of course, we aren't saying that an hour on your PS5 is the equivalent of hopping in a gas-guzzling 4x4 for a road trip, but that gaming is a quiet pollutant, one you might not even consider as being damaging.

Fortunately, there are methods out there to combat that impact, so strap in as we analyse how gaming contributes to the climate crisis, and what you can do about it.

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If you're an environmentally conscious gamer and are interested in how gaming overlaps with environmentalism, check out our picks of the best environmentalist games you can play right now. We've also got a look at the Gratitude subscription service, which is here to make gaming greener.

A PlayStation 5 console next to a PlayStation 4 console.

Does gaming have a green problem?

The simple answer is that no matter how much we love it, gaming is pretty bad for the environment. More than just the vast quantities of obtrusive metals and energy required to produce our favourite consoles, the environmental toll remains significant throughout a system's lifespan.

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It's well-publicised that making a games console takes up raw materials, but the problem is deeper than that. The vast, complex components are composed of 'conflict materials': metals like tin, tungsten, and gold that are often mined from developing countries under poor conditions. As per MongaBay, extracting these ingredients produces mercury and arsenic emissions, seriously harming local environments in the process.

This is a problem that has affected the gaming industry for generations. Earth.org found that since 2015, the production of PS4 consoles alone has contributed more than 8.9 billion kilograms worth of carbon dioxide emissions. That's just one console in one generation, proving just how deep this issue goes.

But there's so much more to it than just console production. Once a gaming system is in your home, the requisite electricity usage has its own host of negative impacts. According to Ben Abraham, CEO of AfterClimate Solutions, gaming in America produces 24 metric tonnes of carbon emissions a year. Even worse is cloud gaming, which sucks energy from hulking servers across the globe in a much more damaging way than downloading a game or using a disc.

It all ends when the built-in obsolescence of our consoles kicks in, and the next generation arrives. Hardcore gamers clamour to shun their existing hardware in exchange for a new system, but these consoles are notoriously difficult to recycle. Components are soldered down, making them difficult to replace or recycle, and the range of metals and plastics used makes it near-impossible for environmentalist gamers to properly dispose of them. As such, much of our beloved hardware often ends up in a landfill.

An Xbox Series S console surrounded by gaming characters and a car.
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How can I solve it?

Fortunately, it's not all doom and gloom. The ability to counteract the negative impacts of gaming trickles down from the top up, with major companies as well as individual gamers holding the power to make some positive change.

Looking at the big picture, the world's biggest gaming companies are finally starting to sit up and take notice. Microsoft has pledged to be carbon-neutral by 2030, with Sony following suit with a net-zero goal by 2050. These may seem like vast, unthinkable objectives that have no tangible meaning to consumers, but we're already starting to see change. As per EU law, consoles must have a low-power standby mode that uses no more than 0.5 watts, leading to PlayStation's Rest Mode setting and Xbox's Energy Saving option. These settings aren't always on by default, but they provide consumers with an easy way to make a difference.

It seems like the manufacturing process is slowly becoming greener, too. As per Microsoft itself, 28% of newly produced Xbox Series S consoles are made using recycled plastics. That comes after a 2019 pledge to produce 8,250,000 carbon-neutral Xbox consoles, made using renewable energy and subsidising the remaining carbon footprint by donating to the Sichaun China Biodigesters project.

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Sony is considerably less active on this front, so as it stands the most environmentally friendly consoles are the Xbox Series S or the Nintendo Switch, which uses just 35 watts of energy to run. Delving deeper, it's more efficient to download games or use discs rather than stream via the cloud, given those hulking servers dotted across the globe. When you're finished with your console, make sure to switch it off entirely, or use the low-power mode as an alternative. Then, if you're looking to upgrade, it's better to donate or sell your console so it doesn't end up in a landfill.

If you want to do something positive while still holding onto your tech, then Gratitude may just be the answer. This new subscription service donates a portion of your monthly fee to charities across the globe, battling against the gaming industry's unsustainable practices. These causes range from the Fusion Farms project, which streamlines food production to reduce plastic packaging and carbon emissions, to RestoreForest, which uses ancient Japanese farming techniques to preserve and enhance green spaces to combat climate change.

No matter which causes you want to promote, Gratitude gives you the choice to determine where your money goes. There's no clearer link between gaming consumption and positive environmental change.

While all the stats can make it seem like individuals simply can't stop the flood of emissions and pollution, there's always a small change gamers can make. While we can't alter the metals mined or components used for console production ourselves, we can switch our device settings, or offset our gaming spending by donating to positive causes. Even better, Gratitude lets you do that while remaining in your game.

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As an added bonus, the first 1,000 annual Gratitude subscribers will be entered into a draw to potentially win an Xbox Series S Gilded Hunter bundle with a controller. So be sure to head on over to Gratitude’s official site to learn more!