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According the the NPD, 74% of gamers prefer to own physical copies of video games. Considering the average gamer is in their 30′s, this number makes total sense as the ability to download an entire video game is a fairly new development. However, some are saying that the purchase of a physical video game over a digital download is extremely bad for the environment.

In 2012, we took a look at some of the environmental impacts of video games and released a cool infographic about it. However, now that downloaded games are becoming more prevalent I wanted to take some time to compare these purchase methods for myself.

How many video games were sold last year?

physical video games sold

Recently, the NPD established that $5.47 billion dollars worth of physical video games were sold in 2014 . While the exact number of units sold last year wasn’t released, we can guesstimate that number by assuming that these games were sold at $60 apiece. This assumption would mean that 91,166,667 physical video games were sold in 2014. It’s worth noting that because many of these games were sold for less, the real number is probably far higher.

So why are physical video games bad?

The main argument against the sale of physical video games is that the resources needed to manufacture, transport, and distribute these games results in a much larger carbon footprint than that of downloaded copy. When you factor in the petrol needed to manufacture the plastics, the factories necessary for production and the vehicles used to transport the final product, the end result is a carbon output higher than that of downloaded games.

But is this argument true?

You might be surprised to hear that this argument is not always true. A study was conducted last year by the Journal of Industrial Ecology regarding the carbon footprint of games distribution in the UK. Researchers discovered that the creation of a single physical 8.8 GB video game for the PS3 produces 1.20 kg of CO2. In contrast, the CO2 emissions from downloading a digital copy of the exact same game is 2.27 kg of CO2. This is a 53% increase in carbon emissions from downloading a PS3 game rather than purchasing a physical copy. You can see a breakdown of how these results were calculated in the table below.

Electricity is the reason for this discrepancy. Because the latest generation of gaming consoles consumes around 10  billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, the downloading of a single game by millions of players leaves quite a large carbon footprint. When you take into account that most gamers leave their consoles running for extended periods of time for each video game download, this amounts to even higher carbon emissions.

Table: The Carbon footprint of an 8.80-GB game: Source

Lower bound (kg Co2-eq) | | Upper bound (kg CO2-eq)
Digital Downloads Games development 0.14 0.14
Product energy (download) 0.00 0.00
Internet energy (download) 2.26 7.89
Product energy (e-tail) 0.01 0.01
Internet energy (e-tail) 0.00 0.00
Game play (use) 19.48 19.48
Product energy (file deletion) 0.00 0.00
Total 21.89 27.53
Total excluding gameplay and development 2.27 7.91
Best estimate (kg Co2-eq)
Physical disks Games development 0.14
Raw materials production and transport 0.27
Manufacturing 0.01
Distribution 0.28
Retail 0.08
Transport home 0.43
Gameplay (use) 19.48
Disposal 0.13
Total 20.82
Total excluding gameplay and development 1.20

 

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that physical copies are better.

The above study does caution that this was for games sold within the EU only, so different results are expected for other parts of the world. The carbon footprint from producing and manufacturing physical game disks in the United States is estimated to be 3 times that of the UK, for instance. This means that a much smaller discrepancy in carbon emissions would be expected in the United States than in the UK, making the carbon footprint of digital games far more similar to that of a physical copy.

Also, keep in mind that carbon emissions aren’t the only factor in determining whether to buy or download your video games. Waste is also important. The plastic cases for these physical games consist mainly of polypropylene plastic, a highly durable, long-lasting plastic that doesn’t degrade quickly at all. Considering that these cases weigh around 3.2 oz each, calculating this into our above assumption means that over 18,233,333 pounds of plastic was generated last year for the sale of physical video games.

In addition, the EPA found that in 2009 82.3% of electronic waste ended up in a landfill rather than being recycled. If this trend continued into 2015, this would mean 15,006,033 pounds of this plastic will eventually end up in a landfill, or worse our oceans. Since these plastics contain chemicals that are known to be toxic to both humans and the environment and because polypropylene has the potential to sit in a landfill for thousands of years, these chemicals may slowly infiltrate our groundwater and wreak unprecedented damage to ourselves and the environment.

So what can we do about this?

It’s time to make conscious decisions about how we purchase our favorite games. As Internet speeds increase and the technology for console gaming improves, hopefully the carbon emissions for downloaded games will too. Currently, however, carbon emissions from game purchases remain tied up in dozens of factors ranging from video game size to how far away your house is from the nearest retail outlet. While many of these factors are out of our control, there are definitely things we can do to ensure we’re the most environmentally conscious about our video game purchases.

If you’re into downloaded games, be sure to turn off your game consoles once the download is complete and always download your games during non-peak hours to prevent excess energy use. You can also download your video games in standby mode to increase the efficiency even further. For those that prefer physical video games, combining your trips to the game store with other shopping trips limits the CO2 emitted from driving. Also, when you’re finished with these games, make sure to resell or recycle them to keep those harmful plastics out of our landfills. If you’re unsure about where to recycle electronic waste, check out  http://www.e-wastes.com/.

Conclusion:

Because our Earth isn’t getting any bigger, I believe downloading video games is the better choice as it prevents unnecessary pollution through the disposal of plastics. Although it’s hard to say whether buying or downloading games is currently more eco-friendly in terms of carbon emissions, it appears that the future is bright for downloaded games as consoles continue to grow more energy efficient and Internet speeds continue to improve.

Currently, 74% of gamers prefer to own physical copies of video games. However, it seems that downloaded games are here to stay. While both purchase mediums have positive and negative effects on the environment, you can definitely ensure you’re being as environmentally conscious as possible with each option. And even though the production and manufacturing of video games is in the hands of our beloved game creators, how you purchase these games is completely up to you.

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