ScienceXGames conference on video games and the environment

I went up to Paris for the ScienceXGames conference on video games and the environment. It was an excellent event full of interesting speakers.

The twin goals of the conference were to explore the direct impact of the video games industry on global warming, as well as how video games can be used to promote positive change.

It opened with a fascinating introduction by Valérie Masson-Delmotte, who contributes directly to the IPCC reports on the physical factors of climate change. She did an impressive job at conveying the current state of knowledge about the effects of climate change and the possible ways that the situation might play out. Her talk was full of data and charts, but she somehow made it comprehensible and compelling.

One slide that stuck out to me was about how we can expect previously "rare" events of extreme heat to occur more and more often. For example, with 1.5-degrees warming (which is the bare minimum at this point), events that used to happen only once in 50 years will happen every between 4-10 years, or 8.6 times as often. At 2-degrees, this jumps up to 13.9 times. At at 4 degrees, 40 times more often- or basically every single year. The rare would literally become commonplace.

The next talk was by Olivier Vidal, a CNRS researcher who did his presentation by video because he was home with covid. He spoke about the problem of rare metals as used in electronics, both for video games and for digital world more generally.

He made the interesting observation that the sales of popular products tend to grow quickly as the public discovers it, but growth eventually stagnates and the market saturates. For example, at first only some people can have a refrigerator at home, then more and more get them, and then finally basically everyone has one who wants it. At that point, you can expect the demand to plateau. However with digital products such as smartphones this has not really been the case, because people change their phones very often. Therefore the number of smartphones sold stays quite high, with all the environmental impact that derives from the mining for precious minerals and the lack of widespread recycling.

He also took on the task of trying to quantify the equivalent amount of CO2 represented by smartphones as compared to cars or data centers. In his analysis, even though building a car has such a larger environmental impact compared to building a smartphone, the sheer number of smartphones leads to them having a comparable overall impact worldwide. In a similar way, streaming video (or cloud gaming) likely has a large impact as well.

The subject of cloud gaming was also the focus of the following roundtable. Intuitively, the impact of cloud gaming should be quite positive. If players don't need to buy new consoles or high-powered PCs, this should lead to less mining, less waste, and even less electricity usage on their end, right?

However, it appears that this may not really be the case. For one thing, analyses seem to show that streaming games only has less impact the downloading if the game is quite large - say over 10 GB. For another, the speaker Paul Benoit from Qarnot talked about how many data centers are pretty horrible consumers of energy. In the US in particular, there are data centers located in Arizona and Nevada (why put them in the hottest places imaginable?) that consume 530 MW (or almost a nuclear power plant's worth of energy). In addition, these data centers also waste huge amounts of fresh water to cool them.

The following talk was fairly different, because it was a technical discussion of how the terrain system for Microsoft Flight Simulator works. This edition was build by ASOBO, a studio from Bordeaux that does pretty incredible graphics work. This was more of a talk that you expect to see at the dev conference, where the designer explained how the rendering system combined data from online maps, arial photographs, height data, and custom 3D models in order to create a truly impressive feat of graphics wizardry.

The talk after that was probably my favorite. It was by Émilien Gorisse, a game designer at Amplitude Studios, about the design of the pollution system of Humankind. The game is a 4X (for Explore, Expand, Exploit, and Exterminate). He explained how the designers wanted to integrate a system that took climate impacts into account. They came up with a "pollution" system, in which using polluting technologies such as coal plants, and bringing goods between far away parts of the map lead to pollution. The pollution can be tracked by player, and as the total pollution gets higher, it becomes visible on the screen. Eventually, if it gets high enough, the players are warned that the end of the world is coming, and if not fixed quickly enough the game ends.

What was fascinating is the disconnect between the will of the designers (apparently as a team they refused to see the game come out without this pollution system) and the public reception. Many players complained about this system as it was released, to the point where mods were created just to shut it off. Eventually, the team decided to make it optional, and disabled it by default.

The speaker gave an interesting and impassioned talk on how this was the crux of difficult game design decisions that will need to be made if we want to talk about climate change in our games.

Jehanne Rousseau then spoke about her work creating a game called "Planet Go!" in the spirit of Pokemon Go but all about cleaning up trash in real life. In a nutshell, players can take pictures of trash they see on the street, which become missions for other players to clean them up. They can also find and save virtual creatures, though didn't follow how this part interacts with the trash mechanics.

She also created a non-profit called "Games for a Better World" to encourage more games of this sort- games meant to be freely available and with a positive impact.

The following talk by Alexandre Pointet, one of the creators of Seeds of Resilance, was amazing too. Unlike the other speakers, he was neither a professionnel game developer nor a scientist. He was impassioned to understand how we can build things ourselves using our own 2 hands, tools, and the local ressources, without relying on other people in far away lands to do our dirty work.

In his game, players need to take care of inhabitants on a small island, with limited ressources. They need to spend these ressources wisely to take care of their populations. Hard decisions need to be made- for example mining a lot of stone to make houses makes the land un-usable for other purposes such as housing or agriculture. There is also a system of soil depletion that seems quite advanced.

In addition to all this, he started a company to make a special insulating material he called "bio-concrete" out of locally-sourced organic plants. Oh and he made his own little house. It was pretty incredible.

The last speaker I got to see before I had to run and catch my train was Joist Vervoot. He has the fascinating job of helping people imagine bright possible futures. He spoke about how there are too many lookalike games that recycle the same boring stories, whereas imagining new futures could open up so many more possibilities.


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