Digital games are more environmentally damaging than physical games

Downloading games actually has a larger environmental impact than buying them physically, a new report has claimed.

A study called The Carbon Footprint of Games Distribution in the Journal of Industrial Ecology says that more energy is used in the playing of games than the production or distribution of them.

Furthermore, thanks to the energy requirements of downloading a game, there are actually fewer greenhouse emissions produced when a game is purchased physically. This is only true, however, for games with a file size of between 1.3GB and 4.5GB or more. Games that are smaller than 1.3GB have a smaller carbon footprint when downloaded.

The results, which are focused on PS3 titles released in 2010, are applicable to games purchased in the EU and also to larger than average games in the US.

So what processes are involved in both scenarios?

For physical PS3 games the vast majority of them are manufactured in Austria. A master copy is transferred digitally from its developer to Sony where it is transferred onto a silicon wafer. This information is then transferred to discs made of polycarbonate, silver, and a protective resin.

Once on disc they are then placed into boxes alongside a sleeve and instruction booklet and then into cardboard boxes, which themselves are placed onto pallets and wrapped in film. These discs are then physically hauled by truck to Northampton and then transported to distributors, who in turn send them out to retailers.

Note that Blu-ray discs cannot currently be recycled so any waste is either incinerated or sent to landfill.

Digitally it’s a very different story, however, with the master copy being transferred to the PSN servers from which users can purchase and download a copy for themselves.

However, it’s this process of creating data files for download using data centre resources which consumes a huge amount of power. The carbon footprint of an 8.8GB PS3 game is estimated to be between 21.9- 27.5 kg CO2-eq. For a physical game it’s only 20.8 kg CO2-eq.

In both scenarios gameplay itself consumes 19.5 kg CO2-eq.

Perhaps, contrary to current consensus that downloaded data will result in lower carbon emissions than distribution by disc, producing and distributing an average-sized game by BD in 2010 resulted in approximately 50% to 90% less emissions than downloading,” the report stated.

Overall, the results indicate that the hypothesis – that downloading data will be more carbon efficient than distribution by disk – is not likely to have been correct in the case for PS3 console games sold within the EU since 2010 (except for games downloaded of less than 1.3 GB).

Similar results can be expected for larger-than-average files in the United States, although by a smaller margin because carbon impacts of production and distribution of optical discs are estimated to be almost 3 times more than in the case of PS3 BDs within the EU.”

The report concedes, however, that increased data centre efficiency since 2010 may mean that the modern market is different, although this is countered by the larger file sizes of many modern games.

Added the report: Though the carbon emissions of downloading could become much closer (but not below) to that for BDs during 2014–2015, it is uncertain how carbon emissions of BDs, compared to downloads, will balance out in the longer term, particularly for larger PS4 games over 40GB in size.”

Usage accounts for the largest share of the carbon emissions of games, which is far more relevant for consumers, and users would be well advised to consider their usage behaviour, such as maintaining autopower down settings.”

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