What if games came with a CO2 emissions label?

What if games came with a CO2 emissions label?
Photo by Helena Hertz / Unsplash

Earlier this year, I set out to answer that question – posed initially by Marina Psaros who was (at the time) working for Unity in SF as their sustainability team lead. Would there be a benefit to putting some sort of sticker or label on game boxes and store pages? Could it ‘nudge’ consumers in the direction of more sustainable games? Is a label like this even possible, and who would need to be involved?

Long time readers will know I’m a skeptic – it takes a lot to convince me that trying to change anyones mind in the climate  is ever worth the time and effort when we could spend simply make the world better instead. So when I set out to answer these questions, and read up on existing successful ecolabelling schemes and the lessons they had for a similar scheme for videogames, I fully expected to end up concluding it wasn't worth the effort. But that’s not where I ended up at all. In fact, I think an ecolabelling scheme for games is both possible and potentially quite beneficial though perhaps not, primarily, in the sense that it pushes consumers away from emissions intense games.

Today I’m releasing the results of that investigation, in the form of a paper which summarises the existing research and points towards ‘The potential for a game industry eco-labelling scheme’. It describes the challenges, and the potential benefits for the industry, and ultimately for the planet.

The super condensed version of the argument goes like this. Ecolabelling schemes need a few things to work: consumer knowledge and trust in the label (that it means what it says it does), have a transparent process behind it, be widely adopted by producers (i.e. game makers) who want to use the label, and be overseen by an organisation or group (or sometimes, a government) maintaining some independence from producers and able to maintain the label scheme over time.

I also found that an ecolabelling scheme for games is unlikely to change consumer behaviours directly – gamers simply don’t choose the games they buy like they choose products at the supermarket – but a scheme like this could produce other positive benefits. These include: greater transparency and communication in the game production ecosystem and providing game makers with better guidance about calculations for game-related CO2 emissions and climate impacts (especially for smaller to medium sized game producers – think Indie to AA game making).

But there are hurdles to jump over too – there’s the methodological challenge of coming up with accurate numbers to include on a label, how to make comparisons meaningful across vastly different types of games, and the practical design issue of how to communicate what these numbers mean to consumers. Special shout out to Trevin York here for his extremely detailed feedback on UX issues with the example ecolabel included in the paper as inspiration. Trevin also suggested some very productive approaches to address these shortcomings, and in fact a small host of people provided encouraging comments and pointed out useful ideas I hadn’t thought of.

At the end of the paper I include a technical description of the proposed method for calculating a single number for a games ecolabelling scheme, which is pretty close to the idea of representing the total “embedded carbon” in a game, at least the upstream part of the games value chain. I’ll let you read the paper yourself to see what sorts of challenges, boundary drawing issues, etc. this would involve.

But I can also share that I am currently applying this method right now with the Denmark/UK based game studio Die Gute Fabrik – and I can’t wait to share the report and findings soon. When studio director Hannah Nicklin approached me a few weeks ago with the idea of doing some calculations to find the climate impact of Die Gute Fabrik’s new game – Saltsea Chronicles a beautiful story-driven adventure game coming out next month – she had no idea about the ecolabelling paper. But the timing couldn’t really have been better, and I think it’s time to give real consideration to the idea of putting figures like this somewhere that players can see them, and know what sort of climate impacts are involved in making their new favourite game.

Next month (or possibly early October – watch this space!) AfterClimate and Die Gute Fabrik will be releasing our report on the production process and estimate of what it cost in planetary terms to make Saltsea Chronicles. It’s the very first attempt to put a figure on the total upstream embedded CO2 emissions for an entire game that I’m aware of, and I’m super excited about it! I think it’s an idea who’s time has come, and I would be chuffed to see others take up and run with it.

It’s the sort of idea that won’t happen on its own though – it will need resourcing, and not just time and money, but an alliance of people and organisations interested in shifting the industry for the better. Not all problems are worked out yet. But if you’re interested in being a part of future conversations about it, let me know.

I think the report next month will show – at the very least – that the calculations involved are quite feasible, and (we hope) also show other studios in a similar position (medium size team, lot of remote workers, tight budgets and timelines) just what is possible, what sort of impacts they are likely having, and what they can do to improve on the next game.

Read the paper here – I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.