Unity’s sustainability manager wants to help video games go green
The sustainability manager is an increasingly common presence in the video game industry, both at billion-dollar mobile gaming giants such as Rovio and publishing start-ups like Kinda. Brave. Psaros is one such recruit, tasked with steering the company behind one of the world’s leading video game engines in a greener direction.
The work is tough and Psaros’ work sits at the heart of the industry’s environmental contradiction. His employer, a software developer, wants a smaller environmental footprint. But the industry – fans and corporate peers alike – are demanding higher fidelity graphics powered by more advanced software and hardware, the production of which involves many carbon-intensive industrial processes. One approach the industry has turned to as a stopgap is to engage fans on the issue of global warming through gaming.
It’s not a new idea, but it’s an idea that’s gaining momentum. Niantic, the creator of “Pokémon GO” and one of the panelists, used the real-world setting of its hit augmented reality game to launch tree-planting and litter-picking initiatives. Ubisoft, meanwhile, is set to unleash a virtual wildfire on “Riders Republic” players in an effort to raise awareness of the increasingly common tree-dwelling disasters. The hope with each is that they could help foster a new generation of eco-conscious citizens, that such video games could function much like Aesop’s fables of ancient Greece – as tools of instruction moral.
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Over Zoom, San Francisco-based Psaros, who co-wrote a recent book on coasts and ocean areas threatened by the climate crisis, refers to the idea of using games to “educate, inform and empower”. players as “mouth-watering,” while emphasizing that such initiatives must be guided by evidence rather than good intentions alone. Having helped plan how the Bay Area might adapt to climate change while working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration before implementing a clean energy program for the city of San Francisco, she knows well the importance of numbers in leading such efforts.
“There are a lot of interesting data on game monetization,” says Psaros. “[But] Thinking about the data-driven lens to support environmentally friendly behaviors is something we haven’t really done yet. »
To gauge interest in the topic, Psaros and his employer Unity commissioned Yale’s Climate Change Communications Program to produce a report exploring players’ attitudes towards climate change (part of a fund reserved for sustainability efforts). Surveying 2,034 adults, 35% of whom were millennials with a relatively even split (about 20%) of Gen Z, Gen X and baby boomer participants, the study found that 70% of gamers worried about global warming. 56%, meanwhile, believe the gaming industry has a responsibility to act on the issue, doing what it can to reduce its own carbon footprint.
What the study didn’t test was the effectiveness of so-called “green nudges” found in video games (a report on this, according to Psaros, is due later this year. via the UN-supported Playing For The Planet programme). One of the concerns about these nudges is that they can be cynically deployed to mask companies’ potentially lackluster efforts to decarbonize — content that, in fact, works like greenwashing.
“There is definitely potential for greenwashing,” says Psaros. “If a company puts climate-friendly messaging into its games but doesn’t take care of its own environmental footprint, that’s really not acceptable.”
The video game industry, due to mined metal circuit boards and the power guzzling of high-end electronic devices used to both play games and make them, as well as the electricity used to power centers of data that is now essential to all aspects of the industry (including online multiplayer battle royale titles whose Unity production is adapting its tools), has a duty to tackle its carbon emissions perhaps more than any other form of entertainment. Indeed, one researcher estimates that the gaming industry’s total emissions for 2020 could have reached 15 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions; In other words, if the games industry were its own country, it would have been around the 130th most intense emitter in the world that year, roughly that of Slovenia, a country of 2.1 million people.
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Under Psaros, Unity has made great strides towards sustainability. It has become carbon neutral (helped by offsetting or investing in environmental projects to balance its carbon footprint) with 60% of its 45 offices using renewable energy, some 100%, she later confirms by email.
But while it is relatively straightforward to deal with a company’s Scope 1 and 2 emissions (i.e. direct emissions from sources owned or controlled by an organization and those from its energy supply), scope 3 – the result of activities of assets not owned or controlled by the reporting organization – is quite more difficult to pin down. The vast network of data centers that supports a global software company like Unity is a huge contributor to this number of emissions.
However, as a major purchaser of these cloud services, the company is in a truly influential position to effect change regarding the electricity that powers it.
“I want Unity to do what Salesforce and Google do, which is demand signaling,” Psaros said, referring to the increasingly common practice of notifying energy providers. that renewable electricity is the preferred type of energy supply. “I get really excited when I think about power purchase agreements.”
Within the Unity company, a growing area of research is the energy efficiency of the software itself. Psaros confirms that there are lab groups at Unity studying precisely this, but part of the challenge is balancing sustainability and energy efficiency goals – “learning to speak the language of engineering teams”, as said Psaros.
The sustainability manager mentions the fidelity arms race – the idea that “the second you save energy here, someone is like, ‘Let’s make it more photorealistic there.’ “Indeed, journalists are concerned that graphical fidelity may take precedence over energy savings at a time when precisely the opposite is expected to happen. If the rumors about the next generation of Nvidia graphics cards are accurate, they could gobble up over 800W – a huge amount of power, generating a lot of heat and requiring more powerful cooling solutions.
As a maker of software for creating video games, Unity is well positioned to lead optimization efforts alongside hardware companies. Are discussions taking place between software and hardware manufacturers on ways to improve energy efficiency?
“These conversations are starting,” Psaros said, while declining to name the hardware companies involved.
Part of what is needed, she continued, is simply better quantification. “We don’t even have that great energy consumption data. Finally now, I feel like there are a lot of engineers who are really committed to this issue. They have so much knowledge to get better performance data.
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Yet despite the promising start, these types of efforts can often feel like tinkering on the periphery of a gaming industry that is fundamentally built on the idea of more: more graphical fidelity, more players, more power, more mining of rare earth minerals to build processors and graphics cards; indeed, several generations of equipment built on the notion of technological obsolescence. Unity, which positioned itself at the forefront of the “democratization” of games in the 2010s, arguably the game engine of choice for developers in the indie scene, has more recently made a concerted push into the realm of stunning photorealism with tech demos like “Enemies” and “Lion,” aimed at both AAA game studios and Hollywood VFX (just like Epic did with Unity competitor Unreal Engine).
The software company is now firmly at the forefront of the most power-hungry high-fidelity consumer game. How, then, does Psaros balance Unity’s commitment to such graphics-intensive games with the company’s desire to be taken seriously when it comes to the environment?
“I don’t have an answer for you. I really don’t think I’m capable of coming up with something off the cuff because, you know, my first reaction is you’re right,” Psaros said. “It is true that there are power-hogging processors. Whenever a new device comes out, everyone is always looking for that new device. And so, how can we help creators and developers to be backwards compatible, and not always look for that? I don’t know what the levers are there.
It remains to be seen whether the apparent friction between Unity’s business practices and its sustainability efforts can be resolved. Such tension is clearly not lost on Psaros. However, the sustainability manager is candid about the place of her own committed environmentalism in the context of a multi-billion dollar tech company.
“I wrestle with these questions walking into these rooms with engineers and thinking [them] through, doing these life cycle assessments, really speaking their language,” Psaros says. “I am supported by the commitments we have already made publicly. There’s so much downward pressure on companies that I feel like, as a sustainability advocate, I’m riding high.
Lewis Gordon is a video game and culture writer. His work has appeared in outlets such as VICE, The Verge, The Nation and The AV Club. Follow him on Twitter @lewis_gordon.