The Environmental Impact of Consoles on Video Gaming

For millions of people, their first taste of the excitement of playing a video game was with Pong, an early home video game consisting of two pixelated paddles and a ball. What debuted in 1972 in arcades made its way into households in time for Christmas 1975. Since then, the electronic video gaming industry has exploded into a visually stunning, multimillion-dollar sector that amuses more than 3 billion people worldwide.

However, along with its meteoric rise in popularity have come many new challenges. The metals and plastics used in their construction, the electricity they use (which comes from fossil fuels), and the difficulty in recycling them after being replaced by the rapidly introduced next generation are just a few of how video game consoles contribute to environmental damage.

Game consoles aren’t the only ones with these issues, but because of their steep rise and massive scope, the sector is a natural target for greener innovations. The gaming business may be ripe for a green revolution because of its devoted and discriminating customer base.

Gaming Consoles Sourced in Mining and Drilling

Like other consumer electronics, video game production involves extensive mining of critical elements (such as metals and rare-earth elements), the creation of new plastics, and the assembly of parts using highly specialized manufacturing processes, all of which result in significant carbon emissions and devastating environmental and socioeconomic impacts.

The list of components in a modern gaming console is staggering. Included are precious metals like gold, lead, lithium, copper, cobalt, nickel, zinc, and cadmium, as well as the industrial byproducts of their extraction and purification. It is common practice for toxic compounds like arsenic and mercury to be released into the environment in considerable quantities throughout the ore extraction and processing phases. Most mining also occurs in developing tropical countries, leading to deforestation and pollution due to sloppy regulation of the extraction and processing stages.

While engineering and environmental policy are making strides in that area, “the drawback [is] that the substitutes tend to be less efficient.”

Human rights abuses have been connected to the mining of tungsten and gold, two raw minerals primarily extracted in regions racked by civil instability and inequality. Because of the widespread concern about using these “conflict minerals,” the largest console manufacturers have begun monitoring their use of these materials and reporting any findings to the public.

Other elements, like cobalt, are often mined in hazardous and poisonous circumstances, sometimes by minors, but are not considered conflict minerals and are subject to less strict monitoring and reporting rules.

After being mined, many raw materials undergo extensive, intricate refining and manufacturing processes before being used in the ultimate step, creating microchips in ultra-clean rooms that require enormous power.

For a life-cycle analysis of the PlayStation 4, Barlow and his coworker John Durrell disassembled one in 2019. An estimated 89 kilos (196 pounds) of carbon dioxide equivalent were released during the manufacturing and shipping of a single console. According to Barlow, “the significant component of the carbon footprint is also the electronics and the control units.”

Microsoft has stated that 825,000 carbon-neutral Xbox systems will be produced in 2019 in response to consumer concerns about the company’s consoles’ environmental impact. 

Very admirable, but as Barlow pointed out, “the way they’re creating these has nothing to do with [preventing other environmental harm]. Furthermore, the profitability and scalability of this method need to be clarified.

An additional crucial component of game consoles is plastics. Cases for gaming electronics are typically built from virgin synthetic long-chain polymers produced in extremely polluting petrochemical facilities, obtained from oil and natural gas fracking wells worldwide. 

Some examples of such areas in the United States are Port Arthur, Texas, and the extensive industrialized crescent of the Gulf Coast sometimes referred to as “Cancer Alley.” But some game console companies are making baby moves toward using less virgin plastic. At least 28% of all new Xbox Series S consoles will have post-consumer recycled polymers by late 2021.

Video Game Consoles Are Energy-hungry Gadgets 

About half of a new console’s lifetime carbon emissions have been produced before entering a consumer’s home. The remainder is almost entirely invested in generating electricity for this resource-intensive device.

The current consoles can produce stunning visuals, audio, enormous computer-generated worlds, and immersive multisensory input. In addition, they are among the most power-hungry home appliances, requiring roughly 200 watts to function. That number must be multiplied by the world’s estimated 3 billion gamers.

According to the Green Gaming Project, playing video games like what CasinoReviewers categorize on home consoles, personal computers, and mobile devices accounts for 5% of California households’ annual electricity consumption.

Energy Savings Attempts Generally Save Little Energy

Efficiency improvements are being pushed in some directions by national and international policies. A new regulation in the European Union mandates that video game consoles and other electronic gadgets enter a power-saving sleep mode that consumes no more than 0.5 watts while not in use. 

Standby mode must be activated after 30 minutes of inactivity, and maximum power usage must be within the thresholds set by law in five additional U.S. states that followed California’s lead.

Recent console generations have responded by making standby power consumption nearly negligible. There is a problem, though, in that many players need to be made aware of or choose to ignore this option. “The energy conservation options of the device are not very well matched with the game design,” said Bourassa.

The Xbox One Series S consumes less than 1 watt of power when in standby mode but is sometimes shipped with the less efficient but faster-loading “Instant On” setting chosen by default. 

While this option speeds up the console’s restart by five to ten seconds, it also dramatically increases its power consumption while on standby by ten times.