Playing at the End of the World: Video Games and Climate Crisis

I’m reading this book by Philip K. Dick right now called The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. It’s set on a near-future Earth which has heated to the point that exposure to the sun is fatal and the UN has begun “drafting” people to be sent to colonies around the solar system in an attempt to save humanity. These colonies are miserable places, and the people on them sustain themselves through chewing a drug called Can-D and using it to project themselves into dollhouse-like “layouts.” Importantly, these aren’t solitary trips. Multiple users project themselves into the same layout simultaneously, experiencing a shared but temporary escape from their boring, pointless lives.

Drugs play a major role in Dick’s work, and he’s more insightful than most about their allure — especially to those who have been discarded by society. But in Palmer Eldritch‘s depiction of shared trips shaped by pre-made settings, I don’t see drugs. I see video games.

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Why We Play

We play video games — all kinds of games — for countless reasons. Sometimes we play to bond with others, sometimes to express ourselves, and often simply to play. But besides fun, games offer something increasingly rare in late capitalism — a sense of purpose.

When I complete a raid in Destiny, I feel a sense of accomplishment. Whether it’s a materially meaningful accomplishment is besides the fact — the feeling is real, as is the fact that I and other players worked together to complete a goal. And as people become alienated from meaningless jobs or feel powerless in the face of world events, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that live games, which provide continually-updating worlds with endless quests and achievements to complete, have become more and more popular.

Historically, religion has stepped in to fill the void left by meaningless labour and awful living conditions. In Palmer Eldritch, the colonists exiled from Earth have mostly replaced religion with the shared drug experience of Can-D. It’s a kind of twist on the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. For Catholics, the wafer and wine consumed in church literally become the body and blood of Christ. In the same way, the colonists feel that they are, in fact, being transported to Earth when they chew Can-D. As games become more immersive via always-on worlds and VR, they’re getting closer than ever to that point. And in the process, they’re becoming more and more energy-intensive.

How We Play

In 2016, console and PC gaming consumed 4.1 terawatt-hours in California alone. That works out to about 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide. Globally, PC gaming uses about 75 terawatt-hours a year, the equivalent of 160 million refrigerators, 25 power plants, or 7 billion LED light bulbs running for three hours a day. And while cloud-based gaming decreases the energy usage on the player’s end, the increased energy usage of network infrastructure and data centers will drive this figure up even higher. None of this takes into account the environmental and human costs of producing consoles, PC components, and physical games.

Projects like Greening the Beast have been instrumental in providing data on the energy usage of modern video games. They also offer some suggestions to rein things in: better information for consumers, more energy-efficient consoles, and so on. But the assumption seems to be that games will continue on as they are, albeit hopefully with some tweaks to make them less costly. What if that isn’t the case?

Here you might want to stop me and argue that gaming’s carbon footprint is smaller than many other individual activities like driving a car, eating meat, or having a child. Or you might want to go even further and say that a focus on individual actions is meaningless given that climate crisis is driven primarily by the greed of the richest people in the world. I don’t deny either of those things. But I also think it’s dishonest to imagine that any radical restructuring of society in response to climate emergencies will allow us to continue with our lives as they are now.

Will We Play?

Maybe at this point you’re digging in your heels, out of anger or resignation. You love games, and you’re going to keep on playing them until the lights go off. I’ve heard the same thing from people who love red meat, and I get it. Change is scary. But here’s the thing — climate crisis isn’t just a big on/off switch where one day you’re playing GTA Online at maxed settings with your friends and the next everyone on the planet is dead. More likely, many things we’re encouraged to take for granted in rich capitalist countries — like animal protein and video games — will become out of reach for more and more people over time.

We’re at a point where tech like Stadia is poised to make cutting-edge games more accessible than every before. Ironically though, the increased energy demands of that technology might contribute to higher energy bills. So the question of whether it is unethical to draw down hundreds of watts an hour to run the newest AAA game on a fat rig might soon be besides the point.

I have no doubt that as long as there are people, there will be play and games. I’m not sure what it will look like in ten, twenty, or fifty years, but I can’t imagine things will be anything like they are now. Today’s games offer us connection and a feeling that we are important in the face of a frightening, disempowering world, and that matters. But there will come a point when that kind of escape simply isn’t possible anymore. We should probably think about what that means that sooner rather than later.