The misperception that computer gaming is conducted only at the “fringe” of society has dampened curiosity about their role in energy use.
-A Plug-Loads Game Changer: Computer Gaming Energy Efficiency without Performance Compromise
The state of California issued a 92 page long report last year exploring the electrical usage of computer gaming in the state, prepared for the California Energy Commission by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, exploring both why video games use as much electricity as they do and how the state might plan for the future related to gaming power usage.
That electrical generation has an environmental impact is multiplied by the fact that the northern half of the state is mostly served by one of the more dysfunctional companies of the breed, Pacific Gas & Electric. The company has gone bankrupt twice in the last two decades and has a habit of setting up situations where it ends up blacking out large swathes of the state due to its own incompetence. Even my late grandfather used to refer to it as “Perpetual Graft & Extortion.”
Anyway, the whole report is available for download from the state as a PDF file here. But the key graph early in the report indicates why this is even being discussed as it ranks various categories of electrical usage.
That is computer gaming using 4.1 terawatt-hours of electricity, which puts it ahead of the total power consumption of Cambodia, if the CIA is to be believed and I am able to do the unit conversion in my head. Also, we appear to use about a terawatt-hour of electricity a year on hot tub pumps. I could have guessed that I suppose.
The report opens, naturally enough, with how this number was arrived at, definitions for quite a few terms (kind of interesting), an attempt to break gamers out into discreet usage segments, and even a chart of power usage for specific titles from various gaming genres on different platforms. Also, there is the revelation that people play a lot of games online.
For the purposes of this report the computer gaming energy use category includes:
…desktop and laptop computers, consoles, and media streaming devices and associated displays, local network equipment, and speakers, as well as associated network and data-center energy.
If I wanted to nitpick, I would go straight to asking how data-center power usage figures into residential plug-load numbers, but nobody is going to listen to me and I suppose as long as we’re only referencing data centers within the state then I ought to let it slide. Even the report admits that the whole thing is complicated to address.
Then there is the matter of what we should do about it. As I like to put it, the “So what?” part of the report that attempts to move it from interesting trivia to some for of action. As the report points out, there has not been a lot of focus on energy consumption in this area, dubious EnergyStar ratings and efficiency measurements for computer power supplies (the 80 Plus program) being about the sum total of the efforts.
The possible suggestions include expanding power/efficiency ratings for components to having a system of ratings for games that indicate the energy use effects that they might have, along with some possible ways to incentivize players to use less power.
Then there are some forecasts of power consumption going forward involving various scenarios from the status quo maintained to VR takes off to consoles explode well beyond current popularity.
In the end it is mostly an interest read, an attempt by some people serious about their jobs to quantify, explore, and explain a complex situation that defies easy measure.
Much of the information in the study is based on earlier studies which are available online from Greening the Beast and which go into more depth in places:
- Taming the Energy Use of Gaming Computers
- Green Gaming: Energy Efficiency without Performance Compromise
In the end you and I pay the electrical bill, so it makes some sense to be at least somewhat aware of the impact game, setting, and hardware choices might have on your monthly statement.