Greener Gamers Could Save $18 Billion by Switching to Efficient PCs

For hardcore computer gamers, saving the virtual world may be all in a day's adventure, but when it comes to the real one, they may be doing it a disproportionate amount of harm. A recent study has found that gamers could be damaging the planet as well as their utility bills with their energy-heavy hobby by contributing to climate change. Furthermore, by becoming more energy efficient, they could be making savings of $18 billion per year by 2020.

Gaming computers—high-spec PCs which are often custom-built and designed specifically for gaming—account for only 2.5 percent of all PCs around the world, but suck up a massive 20 percent of the total energy used by computers, according to the study published recently by researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which works on behalf of the U.S. Department of Energy.

If manufacturers were to provide better labelling and rewrite software code to maximise efficiency, and gamers were to make greener choices, savings of more than 75 percent could be achieved with no loss in performance, the study says. One billion people engage in some form of digital gaming across the globe, and gaming PCs consumed 75 terawatt hours—or $10 billion worth—of electricity in 2012. That's more than the total amount of electricity produced by Chile—65.7 TWh—in 2011.

The study's authors believe that gaming energy consumption will double by 2020 given the upward trend in sales. High-performance gaming PCs—such as the Eclipse SuperNova i5r285oc, which costs a cool £999 ($1,524) in the U.K. and is ranked the best gaming PC by computer site PC Advisor—are growing at a faster rate than consoles and other gaming platforms. The authors estimate that, if the sector was to make the recommended efficiency changes by 2020, an estimated $18 billion worth of energy could be saved per year.

That's the equivalent to the energy produced by 40 500-megawatt power plants, which wouldn't need to be built if the manufacturers and consumers of gaming computers were to go green en masse.

Evan Mills, senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley who co-authored the study with his avid gamer son Nathaniel, says the gaming PC represents "the Maserati" of gaming platforms: high-performance, high-intensity and high consumption. The average gaming PC consumes as much energy as 10 consoles, such as Microsoft's Xbox or Sony's Playstation. "There's fewer of them [gaming PCs] but that's more than undone by how much energy each one uses. Gaming PCs as a whole use much more energy than consoles," says Mills.

There are a number of obstacles to making energy savings in gaming. According to the study, most components—including graphics cards, which can be the size of a shoebox and which Mills refers to as the "workhorse" of the machine—come with no energy-related information on their packaging. Gaming culture, which prizes performance above all and often sees users deploying multiple screens in the quest for the ultimate system, also presents a significant stumbling block to reducing energy consumption.

Jon Peddie, a prominent analyst and advisor to the graphics industry, says that the study is unlikely to result in dramatic changes by the heaviest gamers. "No one wants to pay more for electricity, but hardcore enthusiast gamers don't want anything getting in the way of their performance," says Peddie. "So just as they will [pay] upwards of $1,000 for a high-performance gaming graphics board, they will not flinch if their electric bill goes up."

However, according to Mills's study, energy savings can be made without compromising a gamer's ability to game at the highest level. Improving the efficiency of components has the benefits of reducing heat and noise produced by the machines. Excessive heat production can impact upon the performance of components such as graphics cards and limit their lifespan, while noise is a perennial distraction to gamers wanting to maintain complete focus.

Then, of course, there are the economic benefits. "You could have a very efficient home and offset most or all of your efficiency gains with your gaming PC," says Mills. "For the environmentally or energy-conscious consumer, you don't want to miss the boat and have great windows, a good refrigerator and LED. lights in your house and wonder why your utility bill isn't going down."

While it may not result in an immediate green revolution by the makers and users of gaming technology, the study highlights the environmental impact of the sector. Mills believes there are ample opportunities for policy makers, manufacturers and consumers to become more efficient. Let the games begin.