The sustainability officer is an increasingly common sight in the video game industry, both at billionaire mobile gaming giants like Rovio and publishing startups like Kinda Brave. Psaros is one of those employees tasked with leading the company behind one of the world’s leading video game engines in a greener direction.
The job is challenging, and Psaros’ work lives at the focal point of the industry’s ecological contradiction. Your employer, a software developer, wants a smaller ecological footprint. But the industry – fans and similar businesses alike – demands higher fidelity graphics, backed by more advanced software and hardware, the manufacture of which involves many carbon-intensive industrial processes. One approach the industry has turned to as a stopgap is to playfully engage fans on the subject of global warming.
It’s not a new idea, but it’s one that’s gaining momentum. Niantic, creator of Pokémon GO and one of the panel’s guests, used the real-world setting of its hit augmented reality game to spearhead junk building and junk-collecting initiatives. Ubisoft, meanwhile, will unleash a virtual forest fire on Riders Republic players to raise awareness of increasingly common tree disasters. The hope of everyone is that they could help nurture a new generation of environmentally conscious citizens, that such video games could function a little like Aesop’s fables of ancient Greece – as tools of moral instruction.
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Over Zoom, San Francisco-based Psaros, who recently co-authored a book on coasts and oceans threatened by the climate crisis, calls the idea of using games to “educate, inform, and empower” players “tempting,” , stressing that such initiatives must be guided by evidence and not just good intentions. Having helped plan the Bay Area’s climate change adaptation while working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration before implementing a clean energy program for the city of San Francisco, she knows exactly how important numbers are guide such efforts.
“There’s a lot of great data out there about monetizing games,” says Psaros. “[But] We haven’t really thought about the data-driven lens to support pro-environmental behaviors yet.”
To measure interest in the topic, Psaros and her employer Unity commissioned the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication to produce a report examining players’ attitudes towards climate change (part of a fund set aside for sustainability efforts). Surveying 2,034 adults, 35 percent of whom were millennials, with a relatively even distribution (about 20 percent) of Gen Z, Gen X, and Boomer participants, the study found that 70 percent of gamers are concerned about global warming are. Meanwhile, 56 percent believe the gaming industry has a responsibility to address the issue and do whatever it takes to reduce its own carbon footprint.
What the study didn’t test was the effectiveness of so-called “green nudges” found in video games (a report on this, Psaros said, was due later in the year through the UN-backed Playing For The Planet program). One concern with such nudges is that they can be used cynically to drown out potentially lackluster corporate decarbonization efforts – content that effectively acts as greenwashing.
“There’s definitely the potential for greenwashing,” says Psaros. “If a company builds climate-friendly messages into its games but doesn’t take care of its own environmental footprint, that’s really not okay.”
The video game industry, due to the mined metal circuit boards and the guzzling power of high-end electronic equipment used both to play games and to make games, as well as the electricity used to run data centers, now essential to every aspect industry (including the online multiplayer battle royale titles that Unity tailors its tools to produce) has a duty to fight its carbon emissions, perhaps more than any other form of entertainment. In fact, one researcher estimates that the gaming industry’s total emissions could reach 15 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions in 2020; In other words, if the games industry were a separate country, it would have been about the 130th largest emitter in the world this year, roughly that of Slovenia, a country of 2.1 million people.
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Under Psaros, Unity has made significant strides toward sustainability. It has gone carbon neutral (backed by offsetting or investing in environmental projects to offset its carbon footprint), with 60 percent of its 45 offices using renewable energy, including some at 100 percent, she later confirmed via email.
But while it’s relatively easy to take care of a company’s Scope 1 and 2 emissions (ie, direct emissions from sources owned or controlled by a company and those stemming from its energy procurement), Scope is 3 the outcome of activities involving assets not owned or controlled by the reporting organization – is altogether more difficult to pinpoint. The massive network of data centers that supports a global software company like Unity contributes hugely to this emissions figure.
However, as a big buyer of such cloud services, the company is in a really influential position to effect change in the current that drives it.
“I want Unity to do what Salesforce and Google are doing, which is demand signaling,” Psaros said, citing the increasingly common practice of notifying utilities that renewable electricity is the preferred way to power. “I get really excited when I think about power purchase agreements.”
Within Unity’s corporate walls, a burgeoning area of research is the energy efficiency of the software itself. Psaros confirms that there are lab groups at Unity studying just that, but part of the challenge is balancing the goals of sustainability and energy efficiency — “too learn to speak the language of engineering teams,” as Psaros puts it.
The sustainability lead mentions the fidelity arms race — the idea that “the second you save energy here, someone says, ‘Let’s make it more photorealistic over there.’ Indeed, there is concern among journalists that graphic fidelity is overtaking energy savings at a time when the exact opposite should be happening. If the rumors about the new generation of Nvidia graphics cards are true, they could gobble up more than 800W – a massive amount of power that generates a lot of heat and requires more powerful cooling solutions.
As a maker of software for creating video games, Unity is well-positioned to drive optimization efforts alongside hardware companies. Are there discussions between software and hardware manufacturers about ways to improve energy efficiency?
“Those talks are starting,” Psaros said, but declined to name the hardware companies involved.
Part of what’s needed, she continued, is simply better quantification. “We don’t even have that good data on energy use. In conclusion, I have a feeling that there are many engineers who are really looking into this topic. They have so much knowledge that it takes to get better performance data.”
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Yet despite the promising start, such efforts can often feel like tinkering on the fringes of a gaming industry fundamentally built on the idea of more: more graphical fidelity, more players, more power, more rare-earth mining to build processors and graphics cards ; In fact, more and more generations of hardware are built on the notion of technological obsolescence. Unity, which spearheaded the “democratization” of games in the 2010s and was arguably the game engine of choice for developers in the indie scene, has more recently made a concerted foray into the realm of gaming with tech demos stunning photorealism like Enemies and Lion, which showcase both AAA game studios and Hollywood VFX (just like Epic did with Unity competitor Unreal Engine).
The software company is now crucially at the forefront of the most performance-hungry breed of mainstream high-fidelity gaming. So how does Psaros balance Unity’s commitment to such graphically intensive games with the company’s desire to be taken seriously when it comes to the environment?
“I don’t have an answer for you. I really don’t think I can make something up off the top of my head because my first reaction is that you’re right,” Psaros said. “It is true that there are energy-guzzling processors. Every time a new device comes out, everyone is chasing after that new device. How can we support creators and developers to be backward compatible and not always chasing it? I don’t know what the levers are there.”
It remains to be seen whether the apparent friction between Unity’s business practices and its sustainability efforts can be resolved. That tension is clearly not lost on Psaros. However, the sustainability officer is open about the place of her own dedicated environmental work in the context of a multi-billion dollar tech company.
“I wrestle with these questions by going into these spaces with engineers and thinking [them] do these life cycle assessments and really speak their language,” says Psaros. “I am supported by the pledges that we have already made public. There is so much downward pressure on companies that, as a sustainability advocate, I have tailwind.”
Lewis Gordon is a video game and culture writer. His work has appeared on outlets such as VICE, The Verge, The Nation, and The AV Club. Follow him on Twitter @lewis_gordon.