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Tina Casey headshot

Gamers to the Rescue: 'Huge' Energy Savings Potential In Computer Gaming


A first-of-its-kind study from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has revealed that the global computer gaming industry can make a significant contribution to reducing carbon emissions. Gaming computers are powerful, graphics-heavy devices that use six times more energy than personal computers, and 10 times more energy than gaming consoles. The Berkeley Lab study found that, with some relatively simple system and component changes, energy use by gaming computers could be reduced by more than 75 percent.

The new study adds an interesting twist to the social-impact computer gaming movement, which has embraced gaming as a powerful influencing experience that can lead to positive behavior changes, and provide companies with a powerful new tool for engaging customers.

Computer gaming: All fun and games until the carbon footprint

The new Berkeley Lab computer gaming study is the first ever to produce an estimate of global energy use of personal computers designed for gaming. The methodology included direct measurements on custom-built gaming computers, deploying the gaming industry's own benchmarking tools.

If the gaming industry makes the changes suggested in the study, the potential energy savings is 75 percent. To put it in terms of power generation, the savings by 2020 would be equivalent to 40 typical 500-megawatt power plants that would not have to be built.

The year 2020 is only six years away, and during this time coal, natural gas and petroleum will still dominate the electricity generation landscape, so the direct carbon footprint savings is clear.

Berkeley researcher Evan Mills, who co-authored the study, notes that gaming computers have not faced the same kind of carbon footprint scrutiny that other computers and large appliances have encountered:

"It’s remarkable that there’s such a huge overlooked source of energy use right under our noses. The energy community has been looking at ordinary personal computers and consoles for a long time, but this variant, the gaming computer, is a very different animal ...

" ... Your average gaming computer is like three refrigerators. When we use a computer to look at our email or tend our Facebook pages, the processor isn’t working hard at all. But when you’re gaming, the processor is screaming. Plus, the power draw at that peak load is much higher and the amount of time spent in that mode is much greater than on a standard PC."

According to the study, while only 2.5 percent of all personal computers globally are gaming computers, they account for 20 percent of the energy used by personal computers. The study calculated that computer gaming averages 1,400 kilowatt-hours per gamer annually, which is six times more than other personal computers, and 10 times more than gaming consoles.

Mills also warns that sales of relatively energy-efficient gaming consoles are slacking off even as the power-sucking desktop computer gaming market has been growing rapidly growing:

"There are 1 billion people around the world who are gaming now. And it’s a really diverse demographic. There are a lot of women; the median age is 31. And the popularity of these giant desktop gaming computers is growing fast."

The "opportunity areas" for improving gaming computer efficiency are numerous. Mills recommends that the current voluntary ratings for displays and power supplies should be tightened up, and ratings for additional components should be adopted. That includes motherboards, hard drives and peripherals.

The research team built five gaming computers in more efficient configurations and found that energy use could be halved without loss of performance. To get to the 75 percent figure, they also changed the operational settings for certain components.

Game designers also have an opportunity to pitch in by designing games to use energy more efficiently.

The study was sparked after Mills and his son -- who became his collaborator in the new study -- built a custom system at home. The energy-sucking nature of serious computer gaming quickly became evident on the household electricity bill.

That experience, and the subsequent study, inspired the research team to launch GreeningtheBeast.org, a platform for gamers and the computer gaming industry to organize for energy efficiency improvements.

Here's the breakdown according to the website:

"Based on our numbers, at the U.S. average of 4.4 hours a day of intense gaming, plus everything else you do on your machine, a typical rig might use 1,400 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, or about $200 in energy bills at typical U.S. prices.

"In addition, depending on how dirty your local utility is, your rig could easily be spewing 1,500 pounds of the greenhouse gas [carbon dioxide] into the atmosphere at the same time. That's the middle of the range. How bad can it get ...? Over $1,000/year and 5,000 pounds of CO2!

What is a Rosenfeld?

The full study is available in the journal Energy Efficiency under the title, Taming the energy use of gaming computers. If you take a look, you'll notice that the research team references a unit of measurement called a Rosenfeld, which is the equivalent of the output of one typical 500-megawatt coal fired power plant, or 30 billion kilowatt-hours per year.

Back in 2010, a group of energy efficiency 'gurus' proposed the Rosenfeld as a simple, easily-grasped unit of energy savings.

The Rosenfeld would enable people to visualize the impact of their actions, much the same way as removing the equivalent in cars from the road helps people to visualize carbon savings.

As for Rosenfeld, the namesake of the new unit is Arthur Rosenfeld, former particle physicist and member of the California Energy Commission, whose interest in behavior changes related to energy use dates back to the 1970s oil embargo.

Rosenfeld was among the first observers to predict that economies don't necessarily need to consume more energy in order to grow, a phenomenon that is becoming more evident today.

Image credit: Flickr/macinate

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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