Gaming industry spotlights threats to the planet (via UNEP)

More than 3 billion people around the world play video games. And as they surf subways and unleash angry birds, a growing number are learning about the planet’s most-pressing environmental problems.

That is thanks to the Playing for the Planet Alliance. Facilitated by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the alliance helps software developers to roll into games messages and missions about climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution.

The environmental Easter eggs are part of a broader push by the alliance to help the gaming industry reduce pollution, including from plastic packaging, combat deforestation and rein in planet-warming emissions of greenhouse gases.

This week, the alliance released its 2022 annual report, which found that its members reached some 636 million players. We recently spoke with Sam Barratt, the Chief of Youth, Education and Advocacy in  UNEP’s Ecosystems Division, about why that’s important and how video games could drive a wave of environmental action.

The world is facing a series of environmental crises, including climate change. How can the video game industry help tackle those problems?

Sam Barratt (SB):  Video games are important for two reasons. First, their reach – 3.1 billion people and counting. Second, their immersive stories and communal nature bring together players in a way that music and film simply can’t match.

It’s through these stories that there is a chance to educate this massive audience on environmental themes. Crises, like climate change, are quickly shifting from the future to the present. Speed is everything when it comes to sounding the alarm – and video games are an ideal platform for reaching lots of people very rapidly.

Last year, the game studios that are part of the Playing for the Planet Alliance reached more than 600 million players with environmental messaging. Is that starting to shape attitudes and spur environmental action?

SB: That’s a good question. I’d say it’s still too early to be equivocal on this. That said, a survey of 380,000 gamers ran last year showed that gamers care about the environment and that they would like to see green activations in games, if they are authentic to the games.

But most interestingly there was a 10 per cent uptick in knowledge around environmental themes through games. That’s important. The more people know about climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, the more likely they are to press politicians and companies to meaningfully address these threats. They’re also more likely to make Earth-friendly decisions in their own lives.

We are seeing some important real-world wins, though. For example, the alliance’s annual Green Game Jam planted 2.5 million trees in a short two- to three-week window, so we think that proof is emerging for sure.

The alliance features some of the biggest names in the gaming world, including Microsoft, maker of the Xbox, Sony Interactive Entertainment, which is behind the PlayStation, and Rovio, the creator of Angry Birds. Why do you think so many major players have joined up?

SB: A survey we ran last month showed major players are joining up to learn from others, work with each other and crack tough-nut problems, such as untangling the emission-ownership knot.  The culture in the alliance is all about shifting from competition to collaboration. The initiative works on identifying common challenges and coming up with common solutions.

But I’d also point out that we’re still missing many big names. There’s a lot of work left to do.

Video gaming is an energy-hungry industry. In many places the electricity that powers chip-making factories and late-night Fortnite battles is generated by fossil fuels, driving climate change. Given that, can the gaming industry really ever be green?

SB: You’re right. At the heart of this is that games run on power and devices are manufactured with a range of precious metals often as a result of complex manufacturing processes.

But gaming can be greener for sure. Working with the industry to shift packaging processes, create greater efficiency in play and securing commitments to net zero carbon emissions will help. The role of UNEP is to facilitate this leadership and, so far, 64 per cent of alliance members have committed to getting to net zero. This is a good start but there is a long way to go.

When it comes to the planet, what’s your ultimate hope for the gaming industry?

SB: I have three hopes. One, for sustainability to be the default in the sector. Thinking green needs to become normal for everyone, not something that someone in HR does part-time. Two, I’d like the industry to be a pathfinder that others in the tech sector can learn from. Three, I hope the industry keeps learning and testing new strategies so that the power of gamers is harnessed for the good of the planet.


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