Metaverse: Video game studios warn of environmental impact

Metaverse

As the Metaverse craze grows, video game developers are calling on stakeholders to take responsibility for the ongoing environmental crisis.

Next year marks the 40th anniversary of the burial of thousands of Atari E.T. game cartridges in a New Mexico desert. Following the commercial failure of this game, which marked the end of the Atari era, the video game industry became more professional, first driven by Japan and then further by the United States. Like any successful sector, the field grew exponentially, increasing its material and energy footprint in the process. Games have grown in size from a few kilobytes to over 100GB in some cases, a factor of one million! Game platforms have seen their power explode from 10W to over 700W for high-end consoles and computers.

Today, video games have become an industry whose revenue of USD$180 billion in 2020 has surpassed that of cinema, music, and even sports. The development of this industry has resulted in the sale of hundreds of millions of consoles, computers, graphics cards, and of course billions of copies of games. 

In recent months, the people developing these games have been hired in large numbers to design the “Metaverse”. Indeed, the creation of virtual worlds in real-time 3D has been at the heart of video game development expertise for decades.

The Metaverse, or the advent of a permanent immersive real-time 3D internet, raises more questions than ever about the impact of digital technology. Indeed, two reports by the Shift Project and the Green IT collective estimate that in 2019 digital technology accounted for around 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), with a staggering growth rate of almost 6% per year. Six percent is a doubling in just over a decade. At this level of impact, actions like “deleting our emails and cutting off WiFi” are purely symbolic, and insufficient to meet the Paris Agreement goal of a 5% annual drop in emissions by 2050. In addition to emissions (which make up 11% of the digital footprint in France), there is increased demand for mineral resources (52% of the digital footprint in France).

A 2021 Green IT report estimates that each year, the raw materials displaced by digital services in the EU-28 are roughly equivalent to the weight of all living human beings on earth (571Mt of resources, minerals and metals). Not to mention the generation of ionising radiation, which accounts for 28% of the environmental footprint of digital services in France, according to ARCEP.

The video game industry – and tomorrow’s Metaverse – is a cutting-edge field. Straddling the line between culture and digital technology, the field calls on talents from fields as varied as 3D modelling, programming, sound design and ergonomics. The specific constraints of this medium make it very difficult to produce in “real time”. Every second, at least 30 image frames have to be generated so that the experience remains as fluid as possible for the audience. In the case of “virtual reality” (VR), this can even reach 90 frames per second. This rapid chaining of images, which requires a lot of data and computing power, leads to very high energy consumption, much more so than “traditional” video.

The Metaverse is at the crossroads between a culture of optimisation (both software and artistic) and a race for power. Here we find two of the main features of productivism. Real time video gaming, the Metaverse, is the Formula 1 of digital technology, an engine that is driving consumption in many areas of technology. Raja Kudori of microprocessor manufacturer Intel estimates that it will be necessary to multiply computing capacity by a factor of one thousand in order to provide Metaverse services!

For some years now, the temptation to abstract the user hardware to the cloud has been growing, at the same time as the cost of individual hardware has limited the expansion of that market (€2,000 to €5,000 for a state-of-the-art gaming computer). One way to shift away from personal gaming hardware is via Cloud Gaming. Cloud Gaming is the outsourcing of some of the computing power and energy costs and potential nuisance associated with it. Imagine: instead of running your games on a high-end computer at home, you run them on a server in a data centre and just “stream” the game images to your machine.

Add to this the normalisation of “Game As A Service” among AAA project developers (the biggest projects on the market, running on the most powerful machines), and the trend is clearly towards a “Netflixisation” of the field. This could lead to over-consumption, quickly cancelling out any possible energy efficiency gains from centralisation. However, given the need for very high-end hardware, particularly in the Facebook Meta vision focused on VR, access to the Metaverse could also take the form of a streaming service.

A Cisco forecast showed that streaming UHD video in VR would increase network bandwidth requirements by a factor of 30 compared to current cloud gaming techniques. Therefore, interacting in this way through the Metaverse would likely be a huge energy drain. Moreover, unless we imagine a world of permanent confinement, there is little chance that the Metaverse will replace holidays, meetings, conferences or face-to-face work. It will be an “extra” tool, stacking on top of current energy demands.

Beyond the energy demand of computation and data transfer, the massive growth of Metaverse in VR would generate the proliferation of new categories of physical products, ranging from virtual reality headsets to various simulation peripherals. These categories are already subject to rapid model obsolescence, driven by improvements in technical performance. It is not ecologically sustainable to produce these mountains of devices on a large scale, and we do not have the technical means to recycle them efficiently (82.6% of digital waste is neither collected nor recycled in 2019).  

The notion of “right tech” is now seriously at issue

A few months ago, 5G mobile consumer technology was deployed en masse, but its benefits were significant only for a few industrial cases. Similarly, apart from possible future cases making good use of Metaverse VR technology in a business environment, is it really necessary for everyone to buy power-hungry hardware or additional streaming subscriptions?

Moreover, the Mobile Metaverse could require the 6G envisaged in the French recovery plan. For months we have experienced the challenges of extreme weather caused by climate change. The promise of the Metaverse could lead people even further away from the reality of their own senses and perceptions, moving instead into a kind of digital straitjacket.

We can still avoid repeating mistakes

Facebook’s announcement of the Metaverse has created a shockwave, stimulating many companies (in the midst of euphoria over possible future profits) to commit to technology before even asking themselves what they intend to do with it. They don’t want to miss the bus. But where is that bus going? It’s time to ask. 

As a digital powerhouse with a strong cultural impact, the video game industry can influence ecological transitions: both through business, by charting a new path to technological responsibility, and behaviourally, by proposing stories and interaction systems that explore new narratives of society and relationships with the world.

Politicians and decision-makers, it is high time you took an interest in this subject. Hardware manufacturers, a paradigm shift is needed: abandon the race for power as the only selling point. Gamers, let’s encourage these new initiatives. Developers, it’s time to get our heads out of the sand and take responsibility for the great power of this medium. Let’s develop the needed transition together.

We are at a crossroads. On the one hand, video games can help lead the way to technological responsibility and resilience, and to the exploration of the imagination. On the other hand, by further eroding our national and European digital sovereignty, it can become an additional tool to accelerate the degradation of living conditions on Earth. Let us hope that the future will show us that Ready Player One was merely dystopian fiction.

Aware of the stakes, the following studios have committed not to develop for the Metaverse. Wherever possible, they intend to favour more responsible projects to explore new narratives:

  • Actezéro (represented by Anthony Jauneaud)
  • Alien studio (represented by Mathieu Eric)
  • Arpentor Studio (represented by Adrian Gaudebert)
  • Atomic Raccoon Studio (represented by par Edouard Philippe)
  • CareEd (represented by Benjamin Nunes)
  • Clever Plays (represented by Alexandre Etendard)
  • Damnatio Games (represented by Maxime Delesse)
  • Dream Powered Games (represented by Ludwig Dresch)
  • Ernestine (represented by Antoine Schmoll)
  • Gearprod (represented by Adrien Vert)
  • Goblinz Studio (represented by Johann Verbroucht)
  • Graaly (represented by Mathieu Eric)
  • Ikigai – Games for Citizens (represented by Thomas Planques)
  • Lucid Factory (represented by Rémi Barrero et Benjamin Consol)
  • Manufacture 43 (represented by Daniel Borges)
  • Mastodonte (represented by Aurélien Schneider)
  • Nova-Box (represented by Geoffroy Vincens et Nicolas Fouqué)
  • Parallel Studio (represented by Ronan Coiffec)
  • Studio Nice Penguins (represented by Yvan Corsiglia)
  • Swing Swing Submarine (represented by William David)
  • The Pixel Hunt (represented by Florent Maurin)
  • Tourmaline Studio (represented by Marion Bareil et Camille Attard)
  • Xeno Bits (represented by Maxime Millet)

The same goes for these developers:

  • Julie Berliet (Digital referent, Invest in Lyon)
  • Yannick Berthier (Designer & GPP, Motion Twin)
  • Léonard Bertos (Writer / Narrative designer, freelance)
  • Fabrice Cambounet (Development Director, Remedy Entertainment Plc)
  • Maxime Carpentier (Product Designer chez Jam.gg)
  • Jérôme Cattenot (Art Director, cofounder/ DOWiNO)
  • Arnaud Chapalain (Indie developer)
  • Emmanuel Corno (Narrative Designer)
  • Axel Crétinon (Indie artist)
  • Antonin Deudon (Indie developer)
  • Florian Doyen (Founder of Challenge For Earth)
  • Yannick Elahee (CEO, Tavrox Games)
  • David Fonteix (Game designer)
  • Nicolas Fouqué (Art Director, Nova-Box)
  • Gwendolyn Garan (Knowledge Manager et Vice-Président Push Start (Occitanie))
  • Gregory Garrahan (Game Designer)
  • Thomas Gonzales (Game Designer freelance)
  • Antoine Guerchais (Lead Programmer, 5 Bits Games)
  • Vincent Joubert (Art Director)
  • Dimitri La Sade (Producer, DOWiNO)
  • Guillaume Le Bris (Low carbon game dev and consulting)
  • Clément Marchand (CEO Tin Can Studio)
  • Damien Mayence (Game programmer freelance)
  • Aric McBay (Author and narrative designer)
  • Adrien Pelov (Ex Technical designer, Ubisoft)
  • Stéphane Rappeneau (CFO/Producer, unannounced studio)
  • Jacques Trombini (Indie developer)
  • Adrien Vert (Founder & Creative director Gearprod)
  • Geoffroy Vincens (Founder & Writer, Nova-Box)
  • Mathilde Yagoubi (DG, Game Only)

These experts support them:

  • Philippe Bihouix (Ingénieur, expert en ressources non renouvelables et low-tech, auteur d’essais)
  • Frédéric Bordage (Fondateur du collectif d’experts en sobriété numérique Green IT)
  • Hugues Ferreboeuf (Co-Auteur des rapports sur la sobriété numérique du Shift Project)
  • Nicolas Brard (Consultant en Numérique responsable)
  • Alexis Burguburu (Consultant ACV (Analyse de Cycle de Vie), I Care)
  • Florian Faribault (Consultant indépendant numérique responsable)
  • Maxime Féréol (Journaliste et juriste environnement jeux vidéo)
  • Basile Fighiera (Consultant indépendant en stratégie bas carbone et sobriété numérique)
  • Edouard Fournier (Consultant indépendant en transformation digitale durable)
  • Thibaud Hugard (Consultant énergie-climat & sobriété numérique, BL évolution)
  • Tristan Labaume (Président de l’Alliance Green IT – AGIT)
  • Inès Leonarduzzi (Présidente de Digital For The Planet)
  • Maël Levet (Consultant énergie-climat & sobriété numérique, BL évolution)
  • Arnaud Levy (Co-fondateur noesya)
  • Benjamin Lizon (Consultant ACV (Analyse de Cycle de Vie), I Care)
  • Clément Marche (Co-fondateur Nuageo)
  • Tom Nico (Chef de projet, ingénieur énergie-climat & sobriété numérique, I Care)
  • Mélodie Pitre (Consultante Senior Carbone 4)
  • Fanny Valembois (Consultante et contributrice Shift Project Culture)
  • Samuel Valensi (Metteur en scène engagé et contributeur Shift Project)
  • Zénon Vasselin (Consultant Senior Carbone 4)
  • Juliette Vigoureux (Consultante pour une Culture durable)
  • Virgile Leclercq (Responsable Design global et Connaissances, Ctrl S)
  • Ben Abraham (Experienced sustainability researcher, AfterClimate)
  • Adrien Montagut (Cofondateur de Commown)

These entrepreneurs and associations support them:

  • APCC (Association des Professionnels du Conseil Climat, énergie et environnement)
  • Latitudes (Association pour une tech engagée et responsable)
  • (Association) Random Bazar (Education aux jeux vidéo, Morawski Henri)
  • Diane Lagrange (Co-fondatrice ICO Partners)
  • Arnaud Schoenher (Pdg de Koji)
  • Ugo Weyl (CEO de Koala)
  • Pascal Vaillant (Responsable de la licence professionnelle Jeux Vidéo à l’Université Sorbonne Paris Nord )
  • Collectif 1.5° Learning

And you dear reader of this text, start tackling this issue in your own organisation, it’s time to talk about it.

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