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  ‘Virtual World Sustainability’ Still in Question  
Posted 2007-03-19 by Tony Walsh
Last December, I wondered aloud if Second Life was ecologically sustainable, given the large number of always-on servers powering the virtual world. At the time, user concurrency hovered around the 15,000 mark--these days it's more like 30,000, which makes my original question all the more relevant. With more and more computers (both server and client) being turned on to support the growth of places like Second Life, is the virtual world (and I mean any virtual world here) good for our environment?

Nick Carr got a lot more mileage out of the meme, finding that "an avatar consumes a bit less energy than a real person, though they're in the same ballpark." Carr's math picked up a lot of steam, even if its accuracy was debatable. Lots of blogs considered the question thanks to Carr's high-profile punditry--even William Gibson took notice.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear at a panel during this year's SXSW conference that the meme is still alive and kicking. Robin Hunicke carried it forward in a discussion about the 3D web, expressing concern at the consumption of resources related to virtual worlds, and adding that she travels more now because of games--not less. Speaking from personal experience, I've traveled by air more--not less--because of virtual worlds.

With organizations like Greenpeace lambasting fetishized corporations such as Apple for lack of ecological responsibility, I'd like to see similar scrutiny placed on makers of virtual worlds. I'm interested in knowing:
  • Do virtual worlds reduce the need to travel? Which ones in particular and why?
  • What is the average power consumption, from client to server, of an average session in each major virtual world? How does There compare to Second Life or to Habbo Hotel?
  • Are our avatars consuming as much power as the average Brazillian as Nick Carr suggests? If not, what's a better real-world comparison?
  • How much does it cost me personally, in terms of power consumption, on a per-minute basis to use a given virtual world?
I don't think these are necessarily easy questions to answer, but I think real-world inhabitants deserve to be informed about the possible impact of their virtual-world pursuits.
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Comment posted by Ace Albion
March 20, 2007 @ 6:36 am
Your comment about travel is like a Guardian photographer saying they use more petrol because they have to attend all these Greenpeace rallies...

The travel arrangements of a couple of jet-setting professional conference shmoozers doesn't really have anything to do with how *people* are actually using this stuff.

How much energy are we using up doing something other than squinting at SL or WoW on a screen? Putting aside "poor substitute", how much energy is consumed, pollution created, by 50 people in a real nightclub? How much by 50 crowded onto a sim in SL? If we weren't all glued to our computers and TVs, would we be burning up more energy doing other things? Like attending floodlit monster truck shows? Or will be all be sitting on our meditation cushions working on minimising our energy burn?
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
March 20, 2007 @ 10:17 am
Good points, Ace. I'd actually be interested in answers to the questions you pose, in particular what people would be doing if not glued to a screen. Monster-truck rallies are one possibility, definitely, but riding a bike or sharing a table at the pub are others :)

There's actually a business-case behind all this for virtual world makers -- if Second Life, for example, can be shown to consume less energy than There, then that's a selling feature of Second Life over There. If virtual worlds can be shown to save energy, that's a boost for the industry at large.
Comment posted by Ace Albion
March 21, 2007 @ 8:17 am
Well, I raise the questions, because I've had casual conversations with architects interested in actual sustainability, who see the potential for moving activities into virtual worlds exactly because of sustainability.

So sure, the convention circuit keeps you personally in air miles, but in a not-too-distant future, maybe virtuality will provide us with the "required face to face" business without having to commute. That's the vision people aspire to, right? I mean there will always be people who insist on actually shaking someone's hand to do business, but there's a potential for a lot of stuff to get farmed out in terms of teleworking. Maybe virtual worlds are too gimmicky for that, maybe not. Either technology or culture may progress to a point where it isn't seen as goofy, or niche, but a natural benefit of having all these computers around.

If I quit my day job to stay home working in SL, I'll use less fuel. I use a computer in either case. So it's important to look at the alternatives, for comparison. Everything we do uses energy in some way.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
March 21, 2007 @ 5:17 pm
> That's the vision people aspire to, right?

I think it is, but ironically neither SXSW/Screenburn, nor the Virtual Worlds 2007 conference seem to be making moves in this direction. Sure, Screenburn panels were streamed into Second Life, but as far as I'm aware, no avatars were present as panelists.
Comment posted by Ace Albion
March 22, 2007 @ 6:57 am
I don't think it's possible to aspire to something you've already achieved :)
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
March 22, 2007 @ 8:49 am
Further thoughts on this from Robin Hunicke -- unfortunately, her blog doesn't allow comments.
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