The looming emission crisis of gaming in the cloud

Mathijs van Leeuwen is a Global Sustainability Science student at Utrecht University, who partook in the 2021 Sustainability Game course. This course is centred around gaming and game development in the context of a new design paradigm, for which Mathijs wrote the following opinion piece.

Google announcing their Stadia project at the 2019 Game Developers Conference (Google/Stadia)

Google Stadia, Project X and Geforce Now are some of the front-running projects for a new gaming technology called cloud gaming. Not every project has experienced success. For example, Google has just recently pulled the plug on in-house development for Stadia after a very tepid launch. Still, the future of cloud gaming looks promising, with estimations that the cloud gaming market could generate 1.4 billion USD in 2021, which is twice the amount that was expected in 2020.

So how does this new technology work? Cloud gaming is like Netflix for gaming; the content is streamed right to your device from an off-site location. Therefore, your gaming console no longer has to take up space in your home, and instead you game through streaming data to and from giant data centres that do the computing for you. These servers then stream the game back to the monitor or tv-screen in your home, much like how you would watch your favourite TV-show on Netflix. You play the game by sending feedback through a controller to these servers who process that input and stream the in-game result of your action back to you. Obviously, this is supposed to happen with minimal latency so that you get direct input from your actions. The largest benefit of this technology is that the hardware of your console will no longer limit your performance, making 4k gaming at high FPS-rates a possibility for everyone with a good enough screen and internet connection. The unfortunate thing is that this happens at the cost of the environment.

This is because these giant server centres consume large amounts of energy, much more than conventional gaming. A research project studying the energy impact of cloud-based gaming found that consumption increased for every gaming medium. For instance, a desktop using cloud-based gaming is estimated to use around 40–60% more energy than regular gaming on a desktop. The study found even more worrying consumption levels for cloud-based console gaming, which had an average increase in energy consumption of 156% compared to local console gaming. To cite Evan Mills, the leader of this research project:

“Despite the images of invisibility and purity conjured up by the word ‘cloud’, it is in reality populated with intense amounts of energy-using hardware’’.

A scientific study by Marsden et al. (2020) from the University of Lancaster explored the potential increase of CO2 emissions due to cloud gaming in the coming 10 years. Their ‘hybrid’ scenario, in which 30% of gamers transition to cloud-based gaming will already result in a 29.9% increase in carbon emissions. If streaming would become the norm and 90% of gaming would occur in the cloud, then emissions may increase by 112%. Even more worrying is that the paper did not include 4k gaming in their calculations, even though 4k gaming is slowly becoming more mainstream. For instance, the new flagship consoles from Sony and Microsoft both enable 4k gaming, and sales of 4k televisions have grown tenfold from 2014–2019. 4k gaming will result in an even higher energy consumption which may usher in a worsening of an already existing emission problem for gaming, especially if these data centres are powered by fossil fuels.

The tech giants that run these servers have addressed this issue by transitioning to renewable energy sources for their data servers. For instance, Microsoft has stated that all of its data centres will run on renewable energy by 2025. Additionally, Google claims to already run solely on renewables since 2017. However, there is a dark side to these renewables as well. An episode of the Dutch TV show “Zondag met Lubach” shed a light on some sketchy business with the construction of a large wind farm for Microsoft in the Netherlands. These wind turbines have the power to produce energy for 370.000 households in the Netherlands, but instead they are used to power the large data centres of Microsoft. At the same time, the Netherlands is subsidizing wind parks because they are struggling to reach the EU goals for sustainable energy. So not only did Microsoft utilize a valuable area for harnessing wind energy, but they did so while taking advantage of subsidies meant for the greening of the Dutch energy supply. The problem here is that new capacity for green energy gets used for these data centres, instead of for contributing to the transition from our fossil fuel legacy to renewable energy sources for our existing energy consumption. Currently, the tech giants are only looking at their own energy transition as a marketing tool, while not acknowledging the scope of the transition and how their actions are impacting the transitioning potential of other parties.

So we have now established the dangers of cloud gaming, but how can we go forward? First of all, I want to state that transitioning to renewable forms of energy is a step in the right direction for reducing the global carbon footprint. Furthermore, the idea of gaming becoming more accessible to those without money for the latest and best hardware, might contribute to decreasing social inequality. Still, there are some vital elements that have to be taken into account to prevent the emission crisis that cloud-based gaming could lead to. Firstly, the energy transition should be approached more holistically, with tech companies aiming to become greener while being considerate of how their transition might impact the global energy transition. Furthermore, we need a change in perspective on our media consumption. As mentioned before, 4k gaming is on the rise and this will lead to even more worrying energy consumption. We should ask ourselves whether we always need something bigger, better and prettier, if it comes at the cost of the environment. We should tread carefully to make sure that the dream of cloud-based gaming does not end up being an energy nightmare.

Anticiplay is an NWO Vidi-funded research project that aims to establish a new design paradigm for the gaming sector in collaboration with CreaTures EU. You can find our mission statement here! Follow us @anticiplay on Twitter, and feel free to engage us with any questions, games that you think are inspiring, and anything else!

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An NWO Vidi research project that explores how games can help imagine and realize sustainable futures - transforming governance and the game sector.

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Anticiplay

Anticiplay

An NWO Vidi research project that explores how games can help imagine and realize sustainable futures - transforming governance and the game sector.

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