How sustainable is gaming?

You could say that I'm a "sustainability student", if such a thing exists. Sustainability has become a very broad term, but it has been one of the most influencing words throughout my nearly ending years of studying at TU Delft. That being said, what you can definitely say about me is that I am a gamer. I love playing video games in the periods of time that I can relax.  Unfortunately for me, lately I have not had much time to play video games. Partly because I have to write columns for one of my TU Delft courses, and I'm very bad at writing columns.

However, for this particular column I thought it would be a nice idea to combine the best of two worlds; Research about sustainability, and gaming. I found an article written by Mayers et al. (2014), who looked into the carbon footprint of console game distribution. They compared the carbon footprint of physical distribution (on bluray discs) of typical play station 3 games versus the digital distribution of these games in the UK in 2010.

The results were quite surprising: the common consensus used to be that downloading games would be far less earth-unfriendly than producing, copying, packaging and shipping the games to retailers, where gamers would first have to drive towards with their polluting cars in order to pick up the physical copy. It turns out that for games that are sized above 4.5 Gigabytes, buying a physical copy leaves a smaller carbon footprint than downloading the same game directly on your console. Only for games below 1.3 Gigabytes, the carbon footprint is significantly lower for digital copies. Games with a size between these two thresholds carry too many uncertainties to determine how energy use is allocated. However, this does not matter much since games nowadays are generally way above 4.5 GB (I've checked my own console, actually, and found that the popular game Battlefield 4 covers a whopping 60 gigabytes of data, all downloaded directly to my console).


Of course, as with all research and especially when doing Life Cycle Analysis, you are restricted in drawing too broad conclusions due to the fact that you are bound to certain assumptions. Without these assumptions, doing a lifecycle analysis would become an impossible job. However, you have to be really careful with these assumptions, of course. In this case, a reader pointed out an interesting flaw in the research on the personal webpage on one of the writers. He noticed that the authors used an allocation method for "internet" energy use where the total electricity used over the year by a certain router is allocated in proportion to how much data is being transferred over the year. So a 1 GB file is allocated 1/8 as much electricity use and emissions as an 8 GB file. He then pointed out that allocating emissions based on bandwidth is flawed because there is hardly any difference in energy use of a router when downloading or when in idle mode. And routers are always on, regardless. " Using your approach", he claims, "1 hour of downloading a file is given the same emissions as >250 hours of online gaming, even though the hardware consumes the same power during each hour of online gaming as it does during the single hour of downloading." What I liked is that he also explained it in simpler terms: " If I need a light bulb on to read a book, the bulb consumes a fixed amount of electricity regardless of how fast I read. The reading-related emissions are a product of how much time I spend reading, not how many words I read. The same is true with CPE and bandwidth use." The author is still to reply to this comment.

The moral of this colum is this: It is good to see that detailed research is performed about the effect on our climate of daily things that we often take for granted. Sometimes the results can be surprising, such as with this case. However, it is also good to see that there are still people who don't take everything that is shown to them by heart, and who keep questioning things even when they are published in scientific papers from renowned journals.




Mayers, K., Koomey, J., Hall, R., Bauer, M., France, C., & Webb, A. (2014). The Carbon Footprint of Games Distribution. Journal Of Industrial Ecology, 19(3), 402-415.


Our new article analyzing downloading console games versus shipping them on discs. (2016). Retrieved 22 January 2016, from