Afterclimate helps game developers fight climate change

Earlier this year at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Dr. Benjamin Abraham found himself looking at a grim scene. The climate-focused researcher and author took the stage for his “Making Room for Climate Justice” talk, only to be greeted by a sea of ​​empty chairs.

“I expected this session to be packed like NFTs,” he told attendees at the time.

But a presentation, even at one of the biggest gatherings of game creators in the world, was always only a small part of the plan.

In late August, Abraham launched AfterClimate, a business aimed at helping smaller game developers on their decarbonization journey by doing the legwork to figure out how to reduce emissions for them. Yet why video games, when industries like transportation and energy are (literally) polluting a storm? Because right now, with UN reports heralding grim news and extreme weather plunging a third of Pakistan into flooding and driving millions from their homes, everything counts.

“I see the Pakistan floods and I wish they were a surprise,” Abraham said in an interview with The Washington Post. “But that is exactly what scientists have been saying for decades will happen, and it will happen to more people. … The game developers I’ve talked to are some of the most socially conscious people I know. I think they’re starting to say, ‘Okay, what do we have to do?’ ”

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AfterClimate offers different levels of service depending on how ambitious developers want to go with their decarbonization efforts. To begin, the company will collect data on electricity bills, energy sources, and work/workplace conversations from a study to determine overall emissions and compare them to video game companies of similar size. If emissions are steep, AfterClimate will offer suggestions, for example reducing how much a study relies on specific energy sources or switching to renewable energy in some places.

If a developer or studio is particularly committed, AfterClimate also offers a full audit of all upstream and downstream emissions, including the purchase of new equipment (whose manufacturing and delivery causes emissions) and player access to a game, which means extracting power from players’ ends and potentially taxes data centers.

“We can look at that and say, ‘What’s the full scope of that? What is the best way to reduce those emissions?’ Abraham said. “Is it making the hardware last longer? Is it changing something about the way the game works? Are you transferring more and more computing power to the cloud? It could be moving to game streaming, or it could be the other way around. It depends on where the people are in the world, where the players are; everyone has different emission intensity levels for the electricity we receive.”

Despite a firm belief that climate change became “everyone’s” problem decades ago, Abraham is picking his battles. As in other industries, the big hitters (Microsoft and Sony, in this case) are almost certainly emitting more CO2 than the little ones. But many of those companies are already (slowly) working toward net-zero emissions targets, and according to recent GDC surveys, small teams collectively make up a large portion of the industry. The result of this, at scale, borders on the mind-boggling: thousands of new games come out every month for PC and mobile platforms, most of which come from smaller teams rather than Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, Tencent or anyone else. house names.

“Indie games are not going to have the same footprint as Triple-A games, but they will still have a footprint,” Abraham said. “And the sheer number of people making games in the world these days is intimidating. I don’t know what the answer is for those people, other than to have some kind of service that they can use to help them reduce emissions.”

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The rest of the equation, for Abraham, is simple: large companies have the resources to invest in this problem; small teams don’t. That’s where AfterClimate comes in.

“Game developers don’t have a lot of time on their hands,” Abraham said of an industry where overwork remains a pervasive problem at studios large and small. “So instead of every independent developer in the world spending a couple of months figuring out what they need to do to reduce their emissions, I’d be more than happy to do that for them.”

Since the project is just getting started, AfterClimate is currently working with just one client: a Melbourne-based studio called Paper House which, in turn, is making a game about climate change called “Wood & Weather.” It has been challenging because Paper House staff often work from home, which can make accurate measurement of development-related emissions difficult. But in an industry increasingly embracing work-from-home and hybrid models, that’s exactly the kind of data more creators need.

“We’re trying to figure out a way to use smart energy meters to measure the devices they’re working on, to get a sense of what the footprint of work-from-home game development is,” Abraham said. “Because at the moment, we really only have some estimates.”

This is not to say that Abraham has his sights set exclusively on the indie side of the pond; he simply believes that fighting the biggest fish in the video game industry is a different task. He thinks companies like Unity, which has hired renowned sustainability expert Marina Psaros as chief sustainability officer, are making good-faith efforts to improve.

But if companies like Microsoft and Sony fail to meet negative carbon emissions targets for 2030 and 2050, respectively, or give up on converting worryingly energy-hungry cloud gaming data centers into energy renewable, Abraham believes that only a collective effort will force them back to normal.

“We can hold them accountable,” he said. “If they don’t hit their targets, we’ll nail them to a wall.”

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Abraham also hopes to use AfterClimate as a means to advocate for larger, more systemic changes in the video game industry and beyond. With such a big problem, making individual companies greener, even on what Abraham hopes will eventually become a large scale, will only take him so far.

“We’re trying to cobble something together from what we can do when really we should have frameworks that allow us to take more structured interventions,” he said, pointing to California’s Title 20 regulations, which limit the number of power plays and systems computers, among other devices, can use in a given year, as an example. “I think regulation is going to be one of the main ways that [solve this problem]. We will not be able to govern everyone in another way. People don’t just voluntarily change their way of living.

However, one thing the video game industry cannot afford to do is wait any longer. Abraham has spent years watching well-meaning developers make games about climate change without practicing what they preach. The time for that sort of thing, he tells himself, “was 20 years ago.”

“There’s a long history of wanting to use games to persuade players, to change their minds,” he said. “We could waste a lot of time doing those things when we really need to reduce the millions of tons of CO2 that games generate every year, instead of trying to spend time getting gamers to live greener, whatever that means. We can do both, but we have a finite amount of time and effort.”

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