Why cloud gaming could be a big problem for the climate

Years ago virtual reality looked like the future of gaming, but in 2020, companies are focused on the cloud. Microsoft launched its Project xCloud cloud-streaming service on Sept. 15, allowing all Android users with an Xbox Game Pass Ultimate subscription to access it. Google’s Stadia platform launched in 2019, Sony’s cloud gaming service PlayStation Now led the way in 2014, and Nvidia’s now got its GeForce Now platform on the Nvidia Shield. With more robust and reliable options, cloud gaming’s future looks increasingly bright. But there may be a dark side to that when it comes to its impact on the climate.

Functionally, cloud gaming moves the processing power and the energy use that drives it from your home to remote data centers that are filled with servers much more powerful than the console in your living room. Between the energy required to power those servers and to deliver the content to your screen, cloud gaming can drive up gaming’s overall energy use. That means that if cloud gaming takes off, gaming’s carbon footprint could rise, too — unless companies take notice and green their data centers.

Individually, the carbon footprints of our tech use are relatively small. One Xbox One running inefficiently isn’t the problem. It’s that there are billions of Xbox Ones, PlayStation 4s, smartphones, and computers consuming energy — and daring to use more energy, should cloud gaming take off.

Photo: Bernd Thissen/picture alliance via Getty Images

“We use so many, and there are literally billions of us doing it, that it all adds up to something significant,” Chris Preist, professor of sustainability and computer systems at the U.K.’s University of Bristol, told Polygon.

Cloud gaming’s outsized impact

You can think of cloud gaming as loosely analogous to Netflix, only for games. A piece of media is hosted offsite and is streamed to your device. Rather than processing the information on your console, like you would if you were playing an installed or downloaded game, the work is outsourced to data centers that connect to us through a network of internet infrastructure. But cloud gaming is also different from Netflix and other forms of cloud computing in a critical way, according to Preist.

Cloud computing requires data center capacity and network capacity. In general, Preist said, an application will require a lot of one or the other. A Google search uses a lot of data center capacity but much less network capacity, because the hard part of the task is the computation — figuring out the information to present to the user. Because results are largely text-based, a “relatively small” amount of data is sent to the user, Preist said. Meanwhile, YouTube requires a lot of network capacity and less data center capacity. That’s because videos are already prepared, waiting for a user to push play. Once a user does that, the network does a lot of work to bring that video to the TV screen.

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Cloud gaming uses a lot of both data center capacity and network capacity. That’s because the game has to process data and render video in real-time, in addition to responding to a user’s inputs when they press buttons on a controller. “Per user, a cloud game is likely to use more data center energy, and roughly the same amount of network energy, as watching a video of similar resolution,” Preist told Polygon.

A screenshot from the UN Environment Programme’s “Meet your carbon footprint” VR experience
Image: UN Environment Programme

All of this energy consumption, when drawn from a fossil fuel-powered grid, produces carbon emissions that contribute to the climate crisis.

Cloud gaming is still relatively niche. Players are used to having their game saves hosted via the cloud, but most aren’t engaged in full-blown cloud gaming. According to researchers at Lancaster University in England, while gaming makes up 7% of global network demand today, more than 95% of that is the content downloaded from the cloud and not players streaming games via the cloud.

In their study, the researchers modeled the environmental impact of cloud gaming by 2030 under three different scenarios: one in which streaming stays niche, another in which 30% of gamers use cloud gaming platforms, and a final scenario in which the cloud becomes the norm. They found that their so-called hybrid scenario (where 30% of gamers transition to the cloud) would cause a 29.9% increase in carbon emissions, while the “Streaming-as-Norm” scenario (90% of gamers move to the cloud) would cause a 112% increase in the overall carbon emissions of gaming. The researchers also suggested that their model assumptions are conservative because they focused on mobile devices running at 720p and other platforms running at 1080p resolution. 4K gaming would be much worse for the climate. “If streaming at 4K resolution becomes widespread, then it may well be game over,” the study concludes.

Photo: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

The Lancaster University researchers note that their “Streaming-as-Norm” scenario is extreme, and requires a lot more people to have access to high-speed internet. But even in the hybrid model, where 30% of gamers use cloud platforms, the increase in gaming’s overall climate impact is significant.

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In a 2016 study, scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory came to similar conclusions. These researchers found that while streaming is less energy-intensive at the local level, the additional energy used in remote data centers and in networks more than compensates. According to their findings, cloud gaming causes annual electricity use to rise 40- to 60% for desktop computers, 120- to 300% for laptops, 30- to 200% for consoles, and 130- to 260% for streaming devices. The numbers vary depending on how far the information must travel or how efficient the data center is — both of which are nearly impossible for an average consumer to figure out.

Can the cloud become green?

In reality, whether or not cloud gaming will actually harm the environment more than local gaming depends on how data centers are operated and what kind of energy they’re being powered by. “The answer is more nuanced,” said Sam Barrat, the United Nations Environment Programme’s chief of youth, education, and advocacy. “It depends on where you’re playing in the world, on what device, in what mode, and for how long.”

Some companies have committed to running their data centers entirely on renewable energy. As part of its pledge to become “carbon negative” by 2030, Microsoft said that by 2025, it’ll operate all its data centers on 100% renewable energy. In a statement to Polygon, Microsoft said that its cloud gaming servers “are more power efficient than a standard home console,” and that having multiple users share servers “creates significant energy reduction and lowers the per-customer carbon footprint.”

Image: Playing For The Planet

Google, meanwhile, says it has been matching its electricity consumption with 100% renewable energy since 2017, meaning as its electricity use grows, it pays for the same amount of renewable energy capacity to be built. In September, the company committed to running on “carbon-free energy everywhere, at all times” by 2030.

Sony, too, says it is “striving to achieve” zero emissions across the lifecycle of its products by 2050. The company, like Microsoft, signed onto the UN Environment Programme’s Playing for the Planet Alliance. “We have already implemented various energy efficient technologies within our cloud gaming servers, including efficient cooling, low power idle mode, and efficient power supplies,” said Dr. Kieren Mayers, PlayStation’s director of environmental and technical compliance. “We’re continuing to review our energy use as the technology evolves.”

Mayers said Sony has completed an academic study on its console carbon footprint. Sony will publish information on how PlayStation users can quantify the impact of cloud gaming and computing, he said.

Barratt, who heads up the program, said he’s working with 26 companies to offer guidance on voluntary guidelines for greener gaming.

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“Making sure that grids shift to 100% clean energy will be critical,” Barratt added.

The problem is that no one’s forcing companies to take the climate crisis seriously, and to consider cloud gaming’s impact on it. Barratt said that governments “are starting to look at how to engage the gaming sector to make sure that they are moving on this agenda,” but it’s largely in the form of voluntary guidelines or incentives. And a lot of the details regarding data centers’ environmental impact are not public. Absent government regulation, it’s up to consumers and the press, alongside academics, researchers, and environmental groups, to continue holding companies accountable.

The first step, says Preist, is for companies to study the environmental impact of their cloud services and to report these findings to the public. The next step is for companies to actually implement a plan to bring those emissions down, and to share that plan with the public as well.

“Companies need a quantified emissions descent plan which takes them to net zero climate emissions as soon as possible, using a science-based targets approach,” Preist said. “This should not only include the emissions from their own data centers, but also more broadly of the equipment their services use around the world. To do this this means they must work with other companies across the sector.”

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