In the context of a global climate crisis, it is urgent for all industries, without exception, to do anything in their power to reduce their environemental impact.
There are over 3 billion gamers in the world(1). In the US alone, gaming represents a 34TWh/y (2.4% of residential electricity nationally), with 24 MT/year of associated carbon-dioxide emissions equivalent to that of 85 million refrigerators or over 5 million cars(2).
Add to this the hardware impact, with consoles manufacturing and shipping, monitors, GPUs, physical copies of games, etc.
There are over 1.7 billion PC gamers(3), with comparatively long game sessions, and the higher local consumption(4). PC gaming will be our focus, exploring what can be done by gamers and game studios to reduce this consumption.
We will rely on the study “Toward Greener Gaming: Estimating National Energy Use and Energy Efficiency Potential” as well as our own measurements, to derive actions that can be taken immediately by gamers and game studios no matter their size.
I. The cost of gaming
A gaming PC is a power-hungry machine, even if its consumption varies according to configuration and usage.
As far as a desktop PC is concerned, power usage while gaming can reach between 100W and 400W, and even up to 700W.
On laptops, power usage is often lower, but we should note that they have a much shorter lifespan compared to desktops (and unlike them, they include screen, keyboard and mouse). We will mainly focus on desktops in this article.
Compared to other appliances, power usage might be as high as your fridge (300W to 780W), much more than your fan (10W to 100W), and as much as 80 LED light bulbs (5W to 20W).
Average monthly power usage per french home: 390kWh
Leaving a gaming desktop idle 24/7 for a year: 850kWh*
Gaming on a desktop 2h per day for a month: 8 to 30kWh*
*Assumed power usage: 100W idle, 130W to 450W while gaming.
But isn’t there a big difference between the aformentioned 100W to 400W?
Here’s where I got the wattmeter out and attempted to get an idea of the consumption of our little pixel machines. We wanted to get our own results, and we checked them against our reference study for consistency(7).
This study identifies several factors of variability for video game energy consumption. We will attempt to reproduce some results on our personal machine, labelled “PC 01”:
Intel Core i7–6700K @4GHz + BeQuiet Pure Rock 2 fan
Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080
SSD x 3
HDD x 3
Power supply: Corsair C750M
Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080
SSD x 3
HDD x 3
Power supply: Corsair C750M
1. Consumption per game
On PC 01, and testing a small dozen of games (including our own game Tandem a Tale of Shadows), we observed very big variations in power usage depending on what game is running. We can see the results below, compared to other workloads as well:
You will observe that even some 3D games like Obra Dinn and Inside can be quite power efficient (around 120W) , while next-gen games like Control drain the GPU, resulting in a much higher power usage (up to 300W).
We observe also that the idle consumption is quite important, with less demanding games only using 5% to 25% more than the idle baseline. We measured an identical idle baseline on linux (Ubuntu).
But of course, as any gamer knows, the next step is to dive into the game’s settings.
2. Variability by graphic settings
We’ve spent several evenings fiddling with the settings of a dozen games, including resolution and frame rates to measure changes in power consumption.
Unsurprisingly, the two biggest factors by far are resolution, and framerate.
For example, in our most power-hungry game Control, we can reduce consumption by almost 90 Watts when going from WQHD (5mpx)to HD(2mpx):
3. Framerate matters (sometimes)
As to frame rates, we were only able to test 60 and 30fps, and found that it can have a significant impact, but this varies from game to game:
We can assume that power consumption will increase in a similar manner when running at 120fps compared to 60fps (We were unfortunately unable to measure this directly).
4. Config matters
Your brand new, shiny graphics card is very probably rated for a much higher power consumption than the previous one. However, it is also supposed to be more power efficient. How does it translate to power usage? We compared our config PC 01 to a newer config, PC 02, equipped with an RTX 3070:
PC 01: Intel core i7 7700k, GTX 1080
PC 02: Ryzen 5, RTX 3070
PC 02: Ryzen 5, RTX 3070
As we can see, our more powerful config gulps much more power than the base config, but only in more demanding situations. For less demanding games, the consumption is equivalent, and in some instances significantly less.
DLSS (Deep Learning Super Sampling) is a proprietary technology of Nvidia, implemented on RTX GPUs, that runs the game at a lower resolution, to upscale smoothly using AI on specific GPU hardware. While not indistinguishable to the trained eye, the result is still very impressive, especially given the results we will describe below.
Since our brand new config supports DLSS, we can run some tests on Control, and observe very significant reductions to power consumption:
In fact, on our less powerful config, Control used 215 watts even at 720p. Here, running the game in HD with DLSS at 58% (which corresponds to 720p rendering resolution), we use 173W or almost 40W less! Although this is an isolated example, it demonstrates how gaming on newer hardware can indeed be much more efficient in select cases.
6. Ultra, High, Medium, Low
In the case of graphic settings, the result varies wildly depending on the game.
For example, in Control, we can observe quite a significant impact, saving between 36 and 75 Watts (remember that the idle baseline is around 100W):
However in Doom Eternal, the results vary by a mere 15W between Ultra and Low settings.
The most interesting case however, may be Fortnite, with a whopping 185W between our highest and lowest settings on PC 02 :
The reason we see such drastic changes here is likely that Fornite is using 3D rendering scaling (called “Screen percentage” in Unreal Engine) as part of its settings. In short, without changing the windows’s resolution, the engine renders the 3D scene at a lower resolution and upscales using bilinear filtering (the poor person’s DLSS if you will).
This results in a noticeable reduction in image crispness, but has one big advantage: it does not affect the UI (menus, HUD, or even crosshair). This will be of importance for our recommendations for game devs.
7. A power sink for your eyes: the display
The display’s power consumption should be considered as well.
When measuring our Phillips IPS WQHD display (Display 01) power consumption, we get almost 60 watts at 100% brightness, and 28 Watts on a more average HD LG IPS display (Display 02).
The display’s power consumption scales almost linearly with the brightness setting, potentially reducing power consumption by two thirds:
We find a comparable scaling in “Adaptive display power management for mobile games” for OLED screens.
8. Non-PC gaming
We can refer once again to “Toward Greener Gaming: Estimating National Energy Use and Energy Efficiency Potential”
And these measurements:
“PS5 Electricity Cost” To conclude that with a max consumption of 200W, even newer generation consoles are much more efficient than a high end desktop PC. Last generation consoles are more efficient than most desktops, with exceptions on the low end of configs. They even beat some high end gaming laptops. With a dashboard consumption of 50W, they also have a sensibly reduced idle consumption compared to a desktop.
Most importantly however, portable consoles like the Switch have an almost negligible consumption when compared to desktop PCs or consoles.
The same can be said for mobile gaming, consuming only a handful of watts.
In a twist of irony, your smartphone is by very far your greenest (contemporary) gaming device, with no added hardware cost if you already need a smartphone
II. Gamers: what we can do
At this point we have a few elements that can point to immediate changes gamers can make to reduce their power consumption.
1. Graphic settings
It’s not the majority of gamers who have a screen above standard HD, but for those who do, consider running your game in HD, or even 720p depending on the game.
Cap your FPS to 60, or even 30 depending on the game. Rendering more than your screen can handle is also pure waste.
Don’t play Ultra settings. More precisely, consider playing below what your PC can handle.
Use DLSS if you can.
Choose your hardware accordingly. More pixels and more frames has a significant impact not only in the pollution of producing the hardware itself, but also in the energy cost of running the games.
Keep in mind that watts saved playing are dollars saved on your electricity bill.
2. Gaming less, gaming better
Just as the world hopefully realises that it needs to change its travel habits, its diet, and more generally its addiction to consumption, consider reducing your gaming quantity and improving its quality.
I personally have found a significant improvement in mental health by controlling my play time. Many games nowadays are designed to hook players in and reward mindless hours of playtime, whatever the friendly occasional “time to take a break!” prompt may say.
3. Choosing your platform
The Nintendo Switch, or dare we say — your phone — have a minimal — if not negligible — energy consumption, while offering a great experience in some cases.
If you need a platform for gaming only, consider gaming consoles instead of desktop PCs, and consider off-hand previous generation consoles.
That being said, it will be fruitless to ask gamers to change their long term habits, if this asks them to go against the way games are designed to be enjoyed.
III. Making greener games
1. Devs: Eco mode, eco mode +
It’s commonplace nowadays to include a variety of settings in any PC game, and even console games. Ultra, High, Medium, and a plethora of options are offered.
We propose two new settings:
Eco, and Eco +.
These modes would cap the settings that matter to energy consumption. Eco mode would offer a prompt explaining the recommended settings, and would not go beyond what the devs deem acceptable quality.
Eco mode + would be a more aggressive energy saving mode, and could alter the experience slightly.
Eco mode and Eco mode + would cap resolution, frame rate and relevant graphic settings, as well as using some of the solutions offered below.
They also serve as an awareness tool, as most gamers are probably unaware of the high energy consumption of their games.
Eco mode also serves the same purpose as a battery saving mode on laptops, which is a direct incentive for users.
We can easily imagine adding steam achievements unlocked by completing the game using eco mode or “medium settings or less”
2. Tech artists: trimming the fat
Selectively reducing frame rates and settings
Any modern game engine offers easy ways to cap frame rates on the fly. This could be used very advantageously in many ways:
capping frame rates in menus (many menus and game lobbies are now 3D),
Capping frame rates in cutscenes and static parts of gameplay,
Aggressively capping frame rates when no input is detected for a few seconds.
Escape from Tarkov for example, allows a 30fps cap outside of matches (or “raids”). The measurements below illustrate how menu and lobby performance can save power without affecting gameplay:
Note: the Inventory is mostly rendered in 2D, while the hideout, although serving mostly as UI, is rendered as a real time 3D space in the game.
3D resolution scaling
The resolution scaling used by Fortnite and available in Unreal Engine is an amazing way to reduce the power consumption of any 3D game. 3D resolution can be selectively reduced, once again in menus, on user inactivity, in cutscenes, etc.
We can see below the clear effect of reducing resolution vs. resolution scaling on the UI in Fortnite:
We argue that many games could run at a 10 to 30% resolution scaling with little visual impact to the average player, especially if used selectively.
What settings matter?
We ran some tests in Unreal Engine to determine what quality scaling settings matter most when optimising for power usage. While these tests are conducted in Unreal, many of these settings are present in any modern 3D game engine.
We found that most settings, on their own, don’t provide a clear improvement within our measurements margin of error. There are however a few notable exceptions:
Power usage scales clearly with the ShadowQuality setting in both configs:
Individually, post process quality settings don’t make a measurable difference on their own, nor does anti-aliasing within a significant margin, nor view distance or foliage quality.
As expected, memory optimisations like texture quality settings don’t make a measurable difference on power usage.
As cited previously and found in direct in-game measurements, screen percentage (resolution scaling) makes the most difference by a large margin.
Interestingly, the gains from screen percentage and from Shadow Quality compound, and although screen percentage makes the most difference, we do get a noticeably lower consumption on the lowest screen percentage with lowest quality settings, compared to screen percentage alone.
3. Devs: Keep supporting older hardware
Although we haven’t touched on the environmental impact of hardware in this article, it’s of course one of the biggest issues in gaming. Supporting older hardware is paramount, and even more so avoiding feature exclusive games that can’t be run unless using specific hardware (ray tracing for example). Older hardware, while less efficient, tends to have lower a energy consumption as well.
4. Producers: Supporting mobile & the switch
Compared to a desktop PC, which can use dozens of kWh per month of regular use, a smartphone may use only 1 or 2 kWh per year. The Nintendo Switch, which uses mobile hardware at its core, has a similar power usage.
With 2.2 billion users, mobile gaming accounts for the majority of gamers. The transition to mobile is well underway for better or for worse, with franchises like Fortnite, PUBG, Call of Duty, Diablo, Apex Legends, Battlefield, Pokemon, Valorant, GTA, etc.
However, many PC and console gamers, as well as game studios, are reticent to embrace mobile gaming. It may be attributed to predatory monetization, which is offputting for users and make market penetration almost impossible for smaller or more ethical studios.
With Netflix’ subscription-based gaming offerings, and platforms like itch.io, which offer mobile games for Android as direct downloads, sometimes bundled with PC ports, can hint to an evolution of these practices.
We suggest that studios consider these possibilites, and platforms like Steam, GOG and Epic Games to embrace the mobile platform, to encourage gamers to shift their usage at least in part towards mobile.
5. More digital, less physical
It’s many an indie developper’s dream to see their game art printed on a shiny box, to hold a figurine or a plush toy. Even us at Monochrome have succumbed to the temptation (and financial necessity) of having a physical launch.
For those who can afford it, moving away from plastic boxes, cheap t-shirts etc. all shipped in containers all around the world is a no brainer.
6. The cultural impact of games
A new generation is growing up with gaming as its media of choice, and it’s not even the first one.
Just as Hollywood has shaped a certain cultural landscape in the western world and beyond since the 50’s, it’s up to video games now to give the world new dreams, heroes, and ideals.
Furthermore, video games tend to shape our habits more strongly than other media. To cite Michael W. Clune in his memoir Gamelife:
“Everything that happens in a computer game happens ten thousands times. Because computer games mimic habit, they get through to us. They teach us about the big things in a way nothing else can. They teach us about death, about character, about fate, about action and identity. They turn insights into habits. The habits bore through our defenses. Computer games reach us.”
Video games have certainly inherited certain quirks of our consumption-bound way of life..
We can note in particular that the meta-goal of games is very often the conquest and domination of a given space. From Mario to Age of Empires, the game ends when every corner is explored, their resources collected, and foes and wildlife hunted to extinction.
It’s very probable that upon finishing the Witcher III, you had on your person enough bread and chicken to provide for a small army through a whole war, and enough tulips to open a multi-stories dried flowers themed shopping mall.
In a video game, your place in the world once you’re done with it, is that of a bored demi-god, having harvested, built and/or killed every source of income or threat in your way, and left with (useless) untold riches and overwhelming power.
But how about, instead of buying and trading thousands of shirts, pants, armors and swords during an RPG playthrough, the trader could answer, surprised, that you don’t seem to need a new shirt given that you are wearing one. How about signifying progression by something other than a medieval wardrobe that even the busiest child labor sweatshop would have trouble furnishing?
How about, instead of yet another management game based on endless expansion and resource exploitation, you could start with a huge, polluting, terrible, chemical riddled, depressing city (in other words a perfectly realistic car-centric city), and work your way to repopulating the map of its vegetation and natural resources, reducing your population’s needs and wants? A little on the nose perhaps?
Our heroes can be vegan, take the train, instead of being truck driving, meat eating, globe-trotting tourists, but mostly, they could look at their world differently, not trying to dominate it or become its all-powerful master, conquering every beast, every cave and forest, turning every stone and collecting every flower and trinket, but instead, finding a proper place in a world bigger than them.
Games like Undertale show us that these paradigms are not only possible, but can lead to great critical and commercial success.
Can we make games about giving away, rather than collecting like little dopamine fueled addicts?
Can we reward “little is enough”? Can we make sobriety fun? If not, can’t we make it beautiful?
IV. Global action
1. Energy ratings for games
The study we have been relying on underlines that rating game’s energy consumption is an arduous task, given the number of variables that exist and the speed of their evolution.
We can see this with the numbers we obtained on Fortnite, which has a high power usage on ultra settings, but falls into the low tier once the settings are reduced.
But while it’s true that games will have wildly different consumptions on different platforms, surely there are ways to classify between Control and Minesweeper on desktop, or between a digital and a physical purchase, even if it’s only a comparative label. While complex, we do believe that an energy rating in some form is possible and necessary.
2. Consuming less, consuming digital
Gaming is now socially acceptable, but when we were accepted in the cool club (terms and conditions apply), there was a catch: We became consumers first and foremost. T-shirts, posters, figurines, collector editions, trading cards, lunch boxes, plastic toys, RGB mice, RGB mice, RAM and keyboards to RGB cat-eared headsets, mugs, collector gamepads, branded console cases, branded game cases, branded keychains, plush toys, pillows…
Gaming is not about consuming, and when it is, it should be little, and digital.
While studios and gamers can, on their own, kickstart an evolution of gaming practices, we strongly advocate for the press, and especially video game influencers, streamers, testers and journalists, to take into account the environmental impact of gaming and gaming hardware. There is a lot of progress to be made on this front, when the most discussed topics are the most powerful GPU, PC desktop with obscene pricetags, and the race to the highest graphical settings and framerates.
It is only when these ideas become wildly accepted that behaviors can evolve globally, and serious regulations can emerge.
We are convinced that gaming can have a trumendous cultural and social role, and that it is a powerful artistic tool to educate on the state of the planet. However, we need to clean up our own backyard first and foremost.
Just as there is no excuse for inactivity in the midst of a global crisis, changing our industry for the better can only make our voice stronger against those who refuse to change.
Thanks: Emma Phillippeau, for her unvaluable proofreading and support.
Originally published at https://medium.com on October 17, 2022.