What kind of work is climate advocacy in the games industry?

What kind of work is climate advocacy in the games industry?
Photo by Vanessa / Unsplash

Climate advocacy – like the climate crisis itself – is riddled with paradoxes and contradictions. The contours of the crisis itself seem to demand several things at once: urgency, effectiveness, pragmatism, justice, even as these frequently seem out of reach. Just as we can recognise that the greatest burden to decarbonise rests on countries that have emitted the most CO2, we also have to acknowledge that with a limited global carbon budget remaining it cannot only be advanced economies that achieve decarbonisation, or else we will quite simply be doomed. The same analysis applies to the level of industries, sectors, and even different, competing segments within an industry. All emissions must go to zero, even as we acknowledge that this is harder for some than others.

The urgency and necessity of swift, decisive decarbonisation can lead climate advocates to adopt a sort of siege mentality which makes it difficult to allow the space or time necessary to examine contradictions in our own approaches. Much climate advocacy ends up being guided by two intertwined imperatives – pragmatism and urgency. The first is a pragmatism giving rise to a desperation based on encounters with the status quo and its powerful recalcitrance – whether in the form of the fossil fuel lobby, a hundred or more years of fossil fuel politics and culture (see Matthew Huber’s Lifeblood for one excellent account). The second is the urgency for action which feeds back on and accentuates the aforementioned pragmatism. Together with an analysis of the current political-economic landscape and the dimensions of modern power, these twinned dynamics often lead many of us into the political funnel that channels climate advocacy toward elite appeals. I’m talking to myself here as much as anyone else – but these are tendencies I see in a wide huge range of climate advocacy. If the keys to action on decarbonisation lie in the hands of one person or group, then it seems to simply follow that the swiftest solution is to convince them to act.

One of the best articulations of this challenge that presents to climate advocates (that I’m aware of) is found in Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright’s incisive Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of our Planetary Future. In Chapter 7, ‘After Paris’, following a series of chapters laying out their extraordinarily useful framework for thinking about political adaptations to the emergency climate change presents, they observe the perverse problem that faced climate protesters at the COP21 event where the Paris Agreement was finally hammered out. It’s worth quoting in full:

In terms of protest planning, international summits like the COP21 present the climate justice movement with the question of whether and how to demonstrate. At the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization, the aim was to prevent the WTO ministerial from convening. Demonstrations against the Iraq war targeted state institutions; Occupy Wall Street seized public space. In contrast, most of the climate justice movement did not want to close the UN or COP21 meetings. On the contrary, they wanted to compel them to go further. In that situation, the left protester becomes, if reluctantly or ironically, a cheerleader for elite institutions: less “Shut it Down!” than “Make a Deal!” How should one protest against an international forum one wishes was different, and more effective, that one would in fact be for if it were more powerful and radical? This has proven a complicated strategic question for the climate justice movement. (Climate Leviathan: 173-4)

This strategic question is one that hasn’t gone away – if anything it’s gotten more acute, perhaps even more entrenched, but it’s also a problem that largely applies only to appeals to power. It’s also a question extraordinarily germane to the project of decarbonising the games industry, and for thinking about what our strategy should be. How should ‘we’ approach this task, who is ‘we’ and, what kind of a task even is it anyway? Is it the type of problem responsive to elite expertise or could it – should it – be something else, something more, something less?

This week I had the chance to speak to some of the members of the EU’s video game console energy efficiency agreement process (which I wrote about as part of my first ever post for this newsletter) – with industry leaders from Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft very kindly giving me some time to present proposals for the future of emissions reductions in the games industry. Following the presentation, we then discussed the work they have been doing in this area, what has already been done (the significance and complexity of which is certainly not lost on me). Despite the  many positive insights I gained from it, I came away from the meeting with a range of mixed emotions.

Some of the positives. There is clearly a lot more action and interest in console hardware energy efficiency in the games industry from hardware manufacturers than is obvious from even the material I had read previously or have had access to. The broad trajectory, which is of increasing efficiency in hardware through greater integration (system-on-a-chip developments, and other advanced designs) I was to some extent already aware of, but even here there were dimensions new to me. The process of optimising for efficiency is an ongoing part of the group’s work, and there is some work being done to minimise power consumption and emissions, for instance, via the scheduling of console game updates and downloads to periods featuring lower carbon intensity in grids. This is encouraging to see on the radar already, and was part of the recommendations from my own research – demand response initiatives to respond to energy constraints and high emissions in the grid can be a powerful driver of emissions reductions on the way to fully decarbonized electricity.

The proprietary and platform-dependent nature of much of this, as well as it being in-development technology, however, seems to be hampering wider industry awareness. Early days yet, but promising. It’s also the sort of complex dual technical-and-social challenge to implement so that it avoids back-firing by causing large numbers of players to switch it off, or simply revert to older patterns of downloading in a constant as-it-becomes-available way. An interesting challenge, nevertheless. I will also be thinking long and hard about what I can do to help improve some of these lines of communication and dissemination of what is ‘coming’ in terms of climate-positive changes in the space.

Another positive was the generally receptive way that the members of some of the biggest games companies in the world accepted my framing of the challenge that the industry, and the planet itself, is faced with. The need to decarbonise and do as much as possible in the games industry seems fairly well embedded in the organisations of the biggest games companies on earth – which I could not say with confidence when I first set out to write Digital Games After Climate Change, back in 2015. There is, of course, still a huge amount of work remaining in translating high-level ambition, goals for carbon neutrality, and reduced environmental impacts into real action, and processes of accountability are going to be important. Tt was very nice to meet many of the people who are responsible for these big ambitions.

Similarly, there was a lot of emphasis in the discussion on the game console market shifting to lower-power console offerings already – both with the Nintendo Switch, currently this generations sales leader which was acknowledged, or the Xbox Series S which as a HD rather than 4K console has a substantially lower power profile (74 watts vs 150 watts in the Series X according to Microsoft's own numbers). As positive as these changes are, I still remain concerned about the overall power profile of the console games sector, which means its overal emissions profile. There is still nothing I can see that can act as a hard limit on consumption and emissions. These shifts in the console preferences of the games industry will be very interesting to see develop, and it’s already a complicated picture. Similarly, much was made of the lack of efficiency in the PC platform which remains a Wild West for energy consumption, the only real regulatory limits being the hugely generous Californian Title 20 legislation that puts annual caps on energy for systems. The limits imposed are still very generous, though they are already sending market signals.

I was less enthused by the responses, however, to my own proposals for action. A great deal of the initial discussion was spent explaining why my proposals were, in their view, impossible or unnecessary. I won’t go into the details here as they were at times fairly technical, and some of which I have to acknowledge have a very reasonable basis, but in general they deserve a more full accounting than I have space and time for here. It was made quite clear to me that, however, that essentially “everything possible is already being done”, or has already been considered, and my arguments as to the necessity of including the active gaming use phase in the agreements power caps – coupled with a propsoal to explore resolution limits to keep overall energy consumption and emissions down – were not persuasive. C’est la vie.

The experience, however, has got me thinking a lot about my own approach to climate advocacy, and returning to a fundamental question: not just what is possible but what is necessary, as well as what my theory of change is, or how to go about achieving precisely what is needed. If this is not the avenue for change, then what is? To a great extent, our ultimate master and determiner of the future we are inheriting – the atmospheric system itself – doesn't care much about what we think is fair or possible.

Lately I have been reading the incredible, and also incredibly challenging, book The Freedom of Things by Peter Harrison (one of the co-authors of another book, Nihilist Communism that is a somewhat infamous work, in some circles). Harrison's Freedom is the sort of book that I find hugely productive and clarifying, even as I may not agree wholeheartedly or with absolutely every part of its argument.

Harrison, much like Mann and Wainwright, points to the pragmatism that is forced upon not just climate advocates, but also upon wider society by the imperatives of averting climate catastrophe, with revolutionary political-economic implications: “The control of production is now, particularly with the spectre of ecological demise, not only the Marxist imperative but the realist alternative.” (The Freedom of Things: 54) The triumph of a necessity to control production, for Harrison, is no cause for celebration however. To him, it is a road paved towards forms of (elite) control, whether by agents of capital, a benevolent state, or even the dictatorship of the proletariat. He points toward the long historical record for the results of such systems for managing highly technical problems:

The forces of production as released by capitalism are indeed, as Marx and Engels note, like something conjured up by a sorcerer “who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells” (Marx and Engels 2010: 225). This out-of-control quality of capitalism leads to ecological disaster for environmentalists and to the “potentially terrifying” global consequences of escalating social inequality expressed by worried economists… Planning of global production, even if directed by the free association of human beings, is going to entail an overview of global needs, difficulties and imperatives, and the knowledge and importance of these issues may only be understood by only a few. That is, a centralised planning system may inevitably become the preserver of a caste of priests just as has occurred in the past when the rhythms of production – the calendars of tasks and the sacrifices necessary – became an independent and autonomous force of its own within a developing State. These phenomena have been evident in Inca civilisation as well as in the Soviet empire. (The Freedom of Things: 54)

The target of Harrison’s critique are the very forces of production themselves, along with the role of States in limiting human autonomy, freedom, and self-control and it’s a rare and refreshing take. I have been thinking about about the challenge he poses for some time now, in part because of a short interview I did for Insights, in which I was asked the very reasonable (I’m paraphrasing) question what individuals who want a greener games industry can actually do. I found it very hard to answer, as I still do, because there aren’t currently a lot of things that individuals have the power to do – what can an individual do to shift the monstrously large games industry in a more sustainable direction? My analysis of the political-economic constraints on the games industry led me to try approaching the EU’s VGCA as a potential avenue for greater action and ambition in the games industry. But if the experts and leaders of the games industry I met last week are right (and I consider them to be much more expert on the subject than I am) and more-or-less everything that can be done is already being done then I’m not sure where that leaves us. Perhaps this is the wrong approach after all.

Many on the left have, I think rightly, grown sceptical of green consumerist solutions and the shift in responsibility they enact, putting a moral burden for action on some of the least powerful. The consumer is also not a coherent subject or position from which to act upon the world, let alone upon the grand sweep of history and our planetary trajectory. To illustrate: imagine a world in which both the Switch and the Xbox Series S didn’t exist, replaced by a more traditional higher power console instead. Consumers have no way to ‘demand’ lower power devices in such a situation, even if they were (for some reason) to wish to do so. Production itself is the principal determinant of what is even offered for sale. One of the fundamental issues for consumers is they often do not know what they want and marketing as a field exists by-and-large to create and elicit both existing and entirely new desires. If the consumer has any sort of coherence it is only in the ersatz version of mass mobilisation. In other words, in aggregate: in a market. Gilles Deleuze gestured toward this dimension of contemporary experience in his ‘Post-script on the societies of control’ over thirty years ago now: “We no longer find ourselves dealing with the mass/individual pair. Individuals have become “dividuals,” and masses, samples, data, markets, or “banks.”.” Harrison’s critique of societies of ‘other control’ – of the current world of States and forces of production we inhabit, whether harnessed for planetary ends or not – suggests, at least, that things could be otherwise.

So we return to the question of what kind of work climate advocacy is. Is it something anyone can do? Is it highly technical and specialised labour, the management and direction of economic and material processes that requires expertise and know-how that could never be ubiquitous? Perhaps this is not the right question. Perhaps, as something that concerns all of us, it should be, even needs to be, done or decided by all of us. How do we ensure such a future where we all get to decide?

I’ll finish with a last quotation from Harrison’s The Freedom of Things, which begins with a prelude about the nature of “the future” itself:

The future is really another word for salvation. Religious salvation has always been problematic because it can only be activated after death, but the secularisation of our world view, our adherence to common-sense materialism, has cut off the hope that was death. Therefore, salvation now has to be found on earth, but because the very essence and meaning of salvation comes from the notion of a personal transformation so significant and dramatic, so unknowable and impossible, as death, this salvation was always unattainable, and now even more so. Whenever the word “future” is used, it is almost always used within the terms of salvation or, more particularly, whether there is hope or despair for the future, with either option articulating in effect the image of a salvation interminably delayed or only possible through phenomena over which we have no control.
Modern society does not live in the active creation of its future; it lives in the inactive hope of a future, because for the modern world the future is salvation, or its twin: its absence. To live in history, then, is not to live in a forward movement of “dynamic disequilibrium” as the anthropologist Claude Lévi–Strauss put it… It is to live, no matter how busy we are accumulating for our salvation, in stasis. (Harrison: 1)

Perhaps we are back, right where we started. In the present, in dire need of ways to begin fashioning an active present for ourselves.

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