Clickable Culture   Official Research Blog of Phantom Compass
  Are MMOs Killing The Planet?  
Posted 2007-12-04 by Tony Walsh
Are massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) killing the planet? A report released by environmental group Global Action Plan suggests that computer servers, such as those which are used for online games, have a hefty carbon footprint. In a summary of its report, the group says
  • A medium-sized server has a similar carbon footprint to an SUV achieving 15 miles to the gallon. Servers also require as much energy to cool them as they directly consume.
  • 1,000 PCs left on 24/7 without any power save settings activated will consume up to £70,000 of electricity per year...
Massive online games require massive server facilities--imagine, for example, how many always-on servers World of Warcraft must be running with over 9 million players around the world.

Given that MMOs are growing in popularity, it seems likely that an increasing number of servers will be needed to run the games. One can only hope that the efficiency (quality) of servers will somehow increase more quickly than the quantity of servers required. Because even if quality servers maintain today's levels, we're not doing the planet any favors by playing MMOs. We need to reduce gaming's ecological footprint.

I'm obligated to mention that last year I asked if virtual world Second Life was environmentally sustainable, given its unending hunger for servers. If Global Action Plan is to be believed, the answer is clear.

Since raising the issue, I haven't heard of a single Second Life environmental group discuss its environmental impact first and foremost. If the matter is even considered (and I am only aware of one instance where this was the case), the response seems to be that it's impossible to tell what the impact might be, so it's safe to assume that any good done by using Second Life as a platform outweighs any harm the platform might create. If Global Action Plan's findings are correct, it seems hypocritical to use Second Life as a platform for positive environmental action. A better strategy might be to put pressure on the virtual world's maker to demonstrate any measures it might be taking to reduce the power consumption of its server facilities. The best strategy might just be not to use MMOs at all.
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Comment posted by RyanHensonCreighton
December 4, 2007 @ 12:23 pm
This is like criticizing people who participate in summits on environment-related issues for the amount of electricity and water the conference centre uses.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
December 4, 2007 @ 1:06 pm
It's not the same thing at all, although the consumption of resources during a summit about resource consumption should be a major consideration. Delegates for such a summit could at least pay off their carbon debt through the usual venues. I'd be happy to criticize anyone for driving an SUV to an eco-rally down the street. Or flying in a private jet to a summit on the other side of the world.

Real-world summits such as the recent one in Bali gather a concentration of high-caliber, high-powered delegates. Second Life is a 3D chatroom capable of supporting about 4-5 dozen people in a single zone, or up to about 200 people at the corners of 4 zones. Second Life has never, to my knowledge, hosted the same weight of attendees as a world environmental summit. It simply isn't the right venue for such a thing.

The people at the Bali summit are capable of taking the kind of action the people using Second Life can only dream about. Except that the people using Second Life don't seem to be dreaming about the right things.

Not only is Second Life ineffectual as a platform for meaningful environmental action due to its technical and usability issues, it's actually harmful to the environment (provided the aforementioned report is accurate).

The Bali summit might have been harmful to the environment, but at least the attendees are informed, focused, and in a real position to take action.

Lastly, Second Life is a 24/7 energy-drain, whereas real-world summits tend not to operate around the clock, all year long.
Comment posted by RyanHensonCreighton
December 4, 2007 @ 1:14 pm
YOU try holding a serious online summit when you're being attacked by flying penises.
Comment posted by Jopsy
December 4, 2007 @ 3:23 pm
MMO's keep people at home and off the roads.

For each "SUV" equivalent server out there, there are 40 to 100 (depending on the MMO) people who are not driving around looking for something else to do with their evening...

Or, they'd be sitting there watching television. (And have you seen the carbon footprint involved in making movies and television shows? ;))

(Fortunately, most MMO's are popular at night when it is simpler/cheaper to keep servers cool than it is during the day.)
Comment posted by RyanHensonCreighton
December 4, 2007 @ 3:32 pm
Please - stop posting to this thread! i am very concerned about the ecological footprint that the Clickable Culture web server is leaving.

How many more polar bears have to die to keep this blog active?
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
December 4, 2007 @ 7:18 pm
Classic rebuttal, Ryan. I am not using Clickable Culture as a platform for environmental activism. If I was, it would behoove me to look into how many polar bears this blog is killing. And that's my point: People who use a particular eco-activism platform owe it to their movement and to their credibility to address any potential impact their platform might have.

I can buy the idea that using the internet for eco-activism, say through web pages, Flash content, chatrooms, and/or email, is doing more good than harm. Those internet-based services have greater reach per unit of energy than Second Life, which probably requires more powerful servers than a web server, but is not a form of mass communication.

So if I happened to give a crap about polar bears (unlikely, given their position near the top of the food chain), I would be able to sleep easier knowing I'm "only" publishing a web site as opposed to organizing eco-hippie love-ins for 50 people at a time in Second Life.
Comment posted by TroyMcLuhan
December 5, 2007 @ 2:32 am
Over time, computers require less and less energy to do the same amount of computation - a consequence of Moore's Law. Imagine how many TRS-80's it would take to calculate a single frame of World of Warcraft - and how much energy they'd use in doing so.

Moreover, electricity doesn't have to come from sources that produce carbon dioxide. Even today, one can get hosting from so-called carbon-neutral hosting companies like HostPapa. Once Second Life's servers go open-source, an eco-conference could use such servers to host their meeting.

Last week, Google (operator of many servers) announced "a new strategic initiative to develop electricity from renewable energy sources that will be cheaper than electricity produced from coal." (Source: Google press release on Nov. 27, 2007) Maybe one day most servers will run on electricity from carbon-neutral sources, simply because it will be cheaper.

Support for 50 avatars is plenty if you're doing serious negotiations or workshops. Over time, as hardware and software improve, we can look forward to virtual football stadiums full of avatars. It's just a matter of time.

Second Life today is still a bit flaky and not ready for critical conferences, but it hints at the future. No big company was doing e-commerce on the Web in 1993, but most are today. The guys who started early (e.g. beat out old incumbents (e.g. Barnes & Noble) on the Web.

Already there are excellent conferences going on in Second Life. For example, on December 4-5, there is a Symposium on the Evolution of Communication being put on by the NMC. Registration cost $125-$195 US Dollars. Howard Rheingold is giving the keynote speech. (And no, I'm not an NMC shill - their symposium is just a good example.)

There's a good article about the carbon footprint of conferences, and how it might be reduced by replacing transportation with communication, in the October 5 issue of the Journal _Science_, Vol. 318, pp. 36-38.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
December 5, 2007 @ 3:41 pm
Thanks for the informative contribution, Troy.

I recognize Moore's law presents some hope for future energy reduction, but don't MMOs require greater computing power, more bandwidth, and more computers with each passing year? As I mentioned in the original post, "One can only hope that the efficiency (quality) of servers will somehow increase more quickly than the quantity of servers required."

> Second Life today is still a bit flaky and not ready for critical conferences, but it hints at the future.

Agreed. Particularly with "hints at." In the future, I expect interactive literacy to be higher and virtual worlds to be dumbed down sufficiently to allow an average international delegate to log in from any internet-connected corner of the world.
Comment posted by Patroklus Murakami
December 8, 2007 @ 6:08 am
A few of us were just discussing this idea a couple of days ago. There are some carbon credit offsetting schemes setting up in Second Life which allow sim owners to offset the carbon emissions produced by their server. Now, these need a little investigation as carbon offsetting schemes in the real world come in worthy and dubious flavours, but this is one development that could address your concerns.

I think you're a bit too dismissive of the potential for Second Life to reduce carbon emissions by cutting down on international and national travel. A number of companies are already doing this as a complement to video or tele-conferencing. The opening of embassies in Second Life by real world governments (Sweden, Estonia) indicates the interest being taken in the potential of the platform. And, as you acknowledge, we need to look to the future and to what may come after SL.
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