March update: Game layoffs and sustainability, benchmarking, and the Sustainable Games Alliance

March update: Game layoffs and sustainability, benchmarking, and the Sustainable Games Alliance

It’s been a while since I last wrote for the newsletter. My last links post also only went out to GTG Supporter tier subscribers (despite having a large free preview, as always!) because I picked the wrong setting on the post, so it might seem even longer than it has been if you didn’t get that one in your inbox. That piece has some really important updates from Sony on the limits of console energy efficiency, so if you missed that sad state of affairs, check it out.

In fact, February was the first time I’ve missed the roughly weekly cadence of posts since kicking off the newsletter in May ’22. Since then, I’ve written just under 80k words of published analysis on games and their increasingly known and emerging climate impacts, and what we can do about them. That’s excluding most of the GTG Links posts too, just major pieces. No wonder it was time for a break.

I took some time off in February for a couple of reasons. The first was that I had a couple of weeks of really poor health. Probably COVID, but who knows anymore? I was also teaching a class again for the first time in years, which ate into a lot of my Newsletter writing time. I’ve also been ramping up my involvement with the Sustainable Games Alliance (more on that in a minute).

The other reason, I think, was that I (like a lot of people) was also pretty depressed (distressed?) in February. As I said way back in October last year, writing about videogames while people are dying at the hands of an occupying military backed by the “world’s police” – and now, as literally millions face agonising starvation and the bodies of children dead from malnutrition pile up – it feels even more self-indulgent and pointless. What sort of world are we trying to save from climate chaos anyway if this is what world leaders are willing to let happen, and even actively support? It’s truly sending me crazy to witness it, even as witnessing and refusing to look away, refusing to let the lie that a holocaust can be committed in self-defence stand unchallenged is the absolute least we can do. I’m still working on a piece putting what I think it suggests for the climate justice movement and the dark future it’s leading us towards if we don’t fight it. Ceasefire now is still the absolute minimum.

The games industry is also going through some sort of debilitating contractions as well. Or perhaps more accurately, it’s entering a period of “existential crisis” according to Liz Ryerson. She is thinking here about about the drive behind games resorting to exploitative loot-box monetization and other approaches borrowed directly from the gambling industry (which is another reason to keep these companies included in the Net Zero snapshot each year, as the overlap continues to grow). Ryseron thinks this indicates a lack of ideas in the games industry, particularly regarding “how to sustain an income and an audience” and keep the line going upwards. Instead they have resorted to

any trick in the book they can to keep people coming back. this is the sort of thing i think eventually enough people become more savvy to and exhausted by. when you add this to the delusional overspending of a lot of tech/software companies in 2020/2021 and no longer having super low interest rates, i do think that means that part of the space is hollowing out. i don’t think that this is just a brief downturn and that things will quickly bounce back - i think there’s def more rot happening there.

I tend to agree.

This week, I’ve seen stories pop up on LinkedIn of game developers who were laid off in the past year still struggling to find new jobs, and even relying on food stamps to eat. One commenter said they sold their entire vintage game collection they had been accumulating for decades, while another sold their vinyls. By this point, with seemingly no end in sight to the wave of layoffs (how much of which is strictly necessary, vs the result of so-called “contagion effects”? I do not know) there must be a reserve labour pool now of at least several thousand game developers around the world.

One of the things Ryerson calls out in her commentary (and it’s very short, you should read the whole thing) is the fate of Indie games in this new environment:

for indie games specifically i think the whole phenomenon of indie studios hoping for publisher or tech funds to keep them afloat which is a period i feel started around the mid-2010’s is going to mostly go away. that’s only something that can exist when publishers or companies like Microsoft have money to burn and will take a chance knowing that one thing could be a huge freak success. i imagine indie games becoming more of a space where people sink or swim based on the success of their visibility from self-marketing. which is sorta already where it’s headed.

This is quite sad, not just from the perspective of industry variety, diversity, and livelihoods but also from a sustainability perspective. We have a growing body of evidence that there is something about making indie games that for whatever reason (and it’s likely to be several) makes them fundamentally lower-impact, at least on a per-employee basis and likely also per-product.

Studio lead Terry Burdak of Paper House tweeted this screenshot from Melbourne International Games week the other day half-jokingly that “the logos at the base of the MIGW Steam event can double up as a handy bingo card for local studio closures”.

Die Gute Fabrik, who I wrote last year’s climate impact report for, has closed down in the past week as well. It’s incredibly sad that the underlying business environment has rendered the entire suite of recommendations I produced for them to improve the sustainability performance of their next game largely irrelevant. There has to be a next game.

Eventually, when the lack of ideas and exploitative captivation of gaming audiences reaches saturation point, the interest will almost certainly swing back around to indie makers and their ability to try new things and take on more risk – which is maybe the closest thing I can see to a distant glimmer of a silver lining from Ryerson’s assessment of the for-profit games business right now.

But I worry that in the meantime one of the first things to go, when budgets get tight, will be the “nice to have”, like calculating and acting on “non-financial information” – like CO2 footprints, impacts on biodiversity, resource depletion, energy efficiency, and so on. If we take the bourgeoise economic perspective to its inevitable conclusion for a moment, the absence of these kinds of figures and the absence of action on them is an implicit subsidy provided by “nature” to businesses. Some economists would urge us to think this way, and it at least does make us acknowledge that the Bank of Earth has limits. As some of the more rational-minded economists remind us: the economy is downstream from nature. We can live without the former far more than the latter.

There are countervailing forces, still, one of which is the EU’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive, which from this year onwards is going to make these implicit subsidies mandatory to disclose. One of the goals of this piece of legislation is to make comparisons of different businesses and their environmental performance actually comparable which, if you just go off reading the surface level reporting, most certainly are not (at least not without serious interpretation).

Last year I spent weeks analysing, harmonising, and summarising the implications of the corporate disclosures contained in the Games Industry Sustainability Benchmark – and I think it still represents the best tool through which to compare and benchmark the Green credentials of major gaming businesses. I’ve also been able to drop the price of the report by $200 USD for international customers, just FYI. If you’ve been holding out on picking up a copy, there’s never been a better time.

On the subject of the GISB, I’m also working on producing an interactive dashboard showing the full data set, enabling report owners to drill down into it in as much detail as they like. I’m working on producing this in PowerBI over the next couple of weeks. So keep your eyes peeled for that feature as it’s coming soon, and will be available immediately for anyone who has picked up a copy. Reach out if this sounds like something you’re interested in, but want to see a demo or preview first. I would love to integrate some feedback on it, just like how the GISB is already up to V1.2 following some suggestions and requested clarifications.

The Sustainable Games Alliance

So with all that as context, here’s the most important bit in this post. The month of March is when the rubber hits the road for the Sustainable Games Alliance. I haven’t talked about it enough here yet, aside from a mention in my post about the European gaming footprint, because it’s mostly been a lot of behind-the-scenes work – it’s a huge amount involved in getting a new org off the ground. It’s also, perhaps, the worst time to be trying to launch a new program like this, for all the reasons I just laid out. But the fact that it’s hard doesn’t change that it’s necessary.

Games need a series of agreed-upon methods for drawing boundaries, for inclusions and exclusions of different parts of their value chain footprint – as the recent Playing 4 the Planet report showed. Otherwise, the current situation will continue, where every single game business is going to pick and choose which Scope 3 categories to include and exclude and make their own unique attempts to calculate the components of each. The situation at present is making it impossible to determine who is soaking up these subsidies, who is taking the most from the atmospheric sinks like the oceans and the forests of the earth. Short of a complete post-capitalist revolution, de-growth ascendance, or a post-growth economic whirlwind, this kind of reform is our best shot at actually driving the essential changes we need. And unless we want to reap the revolution much further down the track, when things are well beyond reforming (and let’s face it, they might already be) this is our best bet. It’s the optimist part of me that thinks this has a chance of working.

We’re entering the crucial startup phase at the SGA, and we need to sign up members in the next few weeks and collect memberships. If we’re serious about acting on the science, about doing our part in our corner of the world, then we need change – we need the clarity and acceleration that an SGA standard can enable. Otherwise, we’re just re-committing to the status-quo, and to slowly-slowly accelerating growth of CO2 emissions in our industry, to accepting whatever scraps the profit-driven class decides its willing to dole out.

As part of the development process for the first phase of the SGA standard, we’ll be collecting data from studios and walking them through the calculation process for their entire 2023 emissions. Because of the membership structure, and the SGA desire to facilitate action, not capture value from mandatory disclosure, we’re able to do it for less than if you got a consultant (even me at AfterClimate) could do it for you. I want to build capacity within the games industry to do these calculations for ourselves, to make it business-as-usual, and I want to leverage our collective desire for action which I see expressed almost every day.

Shoot me a reply email if you think your games studio is ready to be a part of the SGA. You’re not going to be alone.

Till next time.