When it comes to environmentalism, people tend to think less junk we produce, like plastic bags and old electronics, the better. Yet new research suggests those clunky disc versions of video games are probably better for the environment than the digital downloads of games burning up the net.
The study, published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, presents an interesting finding: for the life cycle of the average video game, gamers emit less atmosphere-warming greenhouse gases by taking a trip to the store and buying it on disc than downloading the game online.
The study looked at the carbon footprints of games distributed for Playstation3 on blu-ray disc at retail stores, versus from the company's digital download service. Because more and more games are now becoming available for download on popular consoles like the Playstation, Xbox, and Wii, the researchers decided to test whether this distribution method was better for the planet.
Games for PCs, which have long been available for legal download, weren't part of the study. But anyone who owns a gaming computer knows from its heat signature that they're probably operating the electronic equivalent of a Humvee idling 24/7.
One of the most important dynamics that the researchers note is that "the energy attributed to downloading data over the Internet varies in proportion to file size."
Meanwhile the data capacity of discs increased exponentially in the last two decades, with "the energy required to produce different types of optical discs with different capacities has remained approximately the same at any point in time."
Since mainstream game files keep getting bigger, and downloads keep taking longer, this means that both the game consoles and data centers are active pushing bits around and consuming plenty of energy.
And if your data center is powered by coal-fired electric plants, this is a big deal. By contrast, the greenhouse gases emitted to produce, wrap, ship, and acquire the game on disc—doesn't vary by file size.
As the researchers summarize, "contrary to current consensus that downloaded data will result in lower carbon emissions than distribution by disc, producing and distributing an average-sized game by BD in 2010 resulted in approximately 50% to 90% less emissions than downloading."
The bright spot for avid downloaders, is that for game files of about 4.5 GB and smaller, the greenhouse gas difference between downloading and buying it from the store on disc disappears, while downloading games under 1.3 GB is better for the environment altogether.
…producing and distributing an average-sized game by BD in 2010 resulted in approximately 50% to 90% less emissions than downloading.
In other words, if you're playing lots of indie games falling within a smaller file size range, you're not only helping the little guy—you're helping the planet, too.
The researchers also concede that the speed of internet and how we deliver the online world, could affect the environmental footprints of downloads in the future.
"Further research would be needed to confirm whether similar findings would apply in future years with changes in game size and Internet efficiency," the study said.
There's also other research that suggests ditching DVDs and CDs for digital streams, provides massive environmental benefits. In May, a US government study by researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that if all DVDs Americans purchased in 2011 were streamed, the electricity savings could power roughly 200,000 households.
Then again, if you really care about the environment, it's probably best to ditch downloading video games, streaming Netflix, or playing your CD version of Call of Duty, altogether.