Spiegel Online, August 21, 2019

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Next Level "Green Gaming" What Players Can Do for the Climate

Gamescom and Green Gaming: How players can save energy

As the games market grows, so does its energy demand. However, the environmental consequences are often a minor matter for the players. US researchers want to change this - especially in view of the next big trend.

© Christian O. Bruch/ laif

An interview by Markus Böhm

What is the most environmentally friendly way to play? Norm Bourassa (l.) and tester Jimmy Mai tested 26 devices

Bigger, faster, more beautiful: As usual for game fairs, this week's Gamescom in Cologne will once again show off superlatives. It's about dozens of upcoming game blockbusters and worldwide increasing player numbers. But also tech trends like cloud gaming, where games are streamed in high quality from powerful data centers to end devices at home, similar to Netflix streaming movies and series.

However, one topic that is increasingly being discussed by society and politics only occurs in passing at Gamescom year after year, as it does in the industry as a whole: the environmental impact of gaming. Because when the games world becomes larger and more networked, its energy requirements also increase.

Norm Bourassa is one of the few people trying to raise awareness of this issue - under the banner of "Green Gaming". Together with other scientists, the energy expert researched for the Californian Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNT) how much electricity certain games, consoles, gaming calculators and VR glasses consume and what these figures mean.

Bourassa summarizes his findings at the Gamescom Congress on Wednesday afternoon. SPIEGEL spoke to him and his colleague Evan Mills in advance.

Norm Bourassa is Energy Manager at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), operated by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) for the U.S. Department of Energy. There, he focuses on the energy efficiency of modern data centers. Bourassa, who travels to Cologne for the Gamescom Congress 2019, prefers to play chess on the iPhone.

Evan Mills calls himself a "happily retired LBNL senior scientist" who supports the LBNL in projects. He is a fan of the card game "Set".

SPIEGEL: Mr. Bourassa, Mr. Mills, I play a lot. Do I have to feel guilty about my ecological footprint?

Evan Mills: Guilt is not a constructive reaction. It's better to feel responsible and be able to make intelligent decisions. That applies to gaming, but also to driving a car or cooking - basically everything that consumes energy.

SPIEGEL: What role does energy efficiency play in the gaming scene?

Mills: People don't think much about it - that also applies to the scientific environment. The importance of this topic has so far been underestimated. Yet gaming is a social phenomenon deeply rooted in society. In the USA, gaming is played in two out of three households. Here alone, we estimate energy spending on gaming at around five billion dollars a year. As far as the CO2 balance is concerned, gaming in the USA is equivalent to around five million American cars or 85 million highly efficient refrigerators.

SPIEGEL: On the "Greening the Beast" website you can collect energy-saving tips for players - under the keyword "Save $$". Does this work better than "Save the Planet"?

Mills: Sad, but true: Most consumers first pay attention to money, then to the environment. But there is another factor, the quality of the gaming experience: Just as someone who heats with solar energy doesn't want it to be too cold in winter, a player doesn't want a game to get stuck because his device works too inefficiently. Ideally, all factors reinforce each other. Energy-efficient gaming equipment is generally cooler, and electricity is converted into heat. And the corresponding technology is also quieter.

SPIEGEL: What advice do you find particularly important?

Mills: Switch off the system when not in use. This has a big effect on energy consumption over the year. In addition, modern systems start quickly, which is hardly any inconvenience.

Norm Bourassa: There are advantages to using a system that suits your type of player. If you're not interested in the look of the game, but rather in the high score, get a mid-range system or even a console. If you don't care if you have a nice 4K display, don't waste money or energy on it.

The test field for the study ranged from Nintendo's switch to the high-end gaming PC - each system has a key figure like H2 or C7.

SPIEGEL: How much is the system?

Bourassa: The role-playing game "Skyrim" was available on almost all tested platforms. However, the power consumption varied by more than 20 times depending on the system. So if you're primarily interested in experiencing the story of the game, the platform makes a lot of difference.

Power consumption for "Skyrim" on different test platforms

SPIEGEL: Don't hardware manufacturers have much more influence on energy consumption than players?

Mills: Of course, the energy efficiency of processors or monitors is important. But it is often just as important or even more important how gamers play than what they play on - from the hours per day to the settings used. Overclocking processors or using shaders, for example, can increase gaming power consumption by 30 to 40 percent. In the same way, certain adjustments can reduce consumption.

SPIEGEL: So gamers can improve the situation?

Mills: There are software solutions that help save electricity. Radeon Chill from AMD, for example, reduces the frame rate when 60 or 100 frames per second aren't needed. Many things that save energy can simply be activated, it costs nothing. Software developers could generally play a greater role in the whole issue: But nobody comes to them yet and says "Can you help us to make games more energy-efficient?"

Bourassa: I think consoles in screen saver mode are a big waste of energy. Games for consoles are often designed in such a way that players don't have a way to just stop, because you have to reach a certain point to save them, otherwise you lose progress. As a result, players may press pause or call a menu when eating or going to work, but keep their console running for hours.

A comparatively new device: Norm Bourassa observes the test of VR glasses

SPIEGEL: What could politics do?

Bourassa: The games industry is developing rapidly, which makes it difficult for decision-makers to react. But: Apart from online and cloud gaming, the trends are towards greater energy efficiency. As far as the devices you have at home are concerned, we are generally seeing an improvement.

Mills: We noticed that there is no standard test for the energy efficiency of a gaming PC. For gaming equipment, there are often no climate labels or power consumption data. This is a big obstacle for people who want to do the right thing.

SPIEGEL: Can you see the power consumption of a game?

Mills: Games that look simple don't necessarily consume less electricity. "The Sims", for example, needs a lot of energy - because it's a simulation in which a lot happens all the time, which has to be calculated. So when the industry thinks about labeling its hardware, it should label the games as well.

Power consumption of different games on different platforms

SPIEGEL: Do online games consume more electricity than offline titles?

Mills: If the game continues to run locally on the system, the difference in power consumption is small. Cloud gaming is different. Power consumption can double, depending on service and game, and can even triple or quadruple.

SPIEGEL: How come?

Mills: Data centers need energy for computing, but also for cooling and ventilation. If you relocate gaming to a data center, you'll be putting up with a lot of additional energy consumption, given today's technology. In addition, the Internet itself is becoming an important energy factor because cloud gaming generates so much additional data traffic.

SPIEGEL: So far, the debate on cloud gaming has been more about things like latency, hasn't it?

Bourassa: I suspect that the user experience will be more important for many users than the possible consequences for the environment.

Mills: If you move gaming to the data center, the power consumption of the games won't be reflected on the electricity bill. You pay a fixed price for the cloud gaming service, but its power requirements are not transparent. You can use a high-end and very energy-intensive graphics card without buying it - and without having to pay for its performance on your electricity bill.

Web tips on Green Gaming

- A detailed report of the researchers can be found here.

- On the website "Greening the Beast", everyday tips for gamers were derived from the study results. The accompanying offer by Nathaniel Mills (here on the picture), who worked on the study, was put online.

- Tips for console players can also be found on the US site "Energy Star" - including the note that from an ecological point of view it makes more sense to watch streaming services such as Netflix, if possible, directly via a smart TV app instead of a game console. This saves electricity for the additional device.