Google and Nvidia must make the environmental pitch for cloud gaming

A lot has been written about cloud computing’s energy guzzling habits (including on EcoGamer). We know that cloud computing requires giant data centres filled with stacks upon stacks of power hungry computers. It’s easy to see these less as futuristic information factories and more as a blight on the landscape, and the environment. 

Looking at the accompanying energy bills doesn’t do much to stymie these negative associations: data centres in the US alone used 90 billion kilowatt hours of electricity back in 2017 and it’s predicted that centres like these will account for as much as 8% of global power usage by 2030. But while these numbers are undeniably high, putting them into context can be somewhat more difficult. 

A new(ish) report – covered here by the New York Times – has found that data centre energy usage hasn’t multiplied anywhere near as much as our data addiction. Increases in efficiency have meant that despite our data needs multiplying by a factor of six since 2010, the energy cost used by our data centres has scarcely increased at all. 

The study claims that the dramatic increase in the use of cloud computing is a key factor in data centre operators’ drive toward efficiency. According to the report’s lead author Eric Masanet “the public thinks these massive data centres are energy bad guys” but in reality, they’re leading the way in computing efficiency.

As cloud computing hits the mainstream like never before, this news may seem reassuring. Some of the biggest names in computing (and by extension gaming) have offered up their own cloud computing services over the last few years and in the last twelve months alone, Microsoft, Google and Nvidia have all joined, or re-joined, the cloud computing revolution. This time, more than ever before, it seems like these services are here to stay. 

Yet as each of these computing behemoths sets out its stall, going above and beyond to promote the high refresh rates, low costs and extreme resolutions they offer,  the environmental pitch for these products has been sorely lacking. Google is more than happy to talk about the percentage of its energy that comes from renewables (it’s 100% in case you were wondering), but information about the overall carbon cost of cloud gaming, compared to, say, firing up your ps4, is based on little more than educated guesses. You’d be forgiven for wondering why Google, Nvidia and others are keeping their cards so close to their chests.

Perhaps it’s because playing games on computers hundreds (if not thousands) of miles away from you isn’t all that energy efficient after all. Efficient data centres or not, the additional energy cost of running devices at home in addition to running computer racks off-site probably starts to add up. And that’s without taking into account the internet infrastructure that’s needed to push pixels fast enough to stop players throwing their controllers across the room.

Despite the plethora of cloud gaming services offered by every company under the sun, I’ve still got no idea if cloud gaming is the saviour of environmentally friendly gaming or its worst enemy, and that’s kind of the point. Until some of the big cloud gaming companies start making the argument for cloud gaming being an eco-alternative to games consoles, or at least the bleeding edge gaming PCs they mean to replace, it’s only natural for people to fear the worst. 

The environmental cost of video games hasn’t mattered much to consumers up to now – the video games hardware industry has thus far managed to avoid tricky questions about energy efficiency – but the dramatic lifestyle changes that we’ll need to make to slow the burning of the planet will leave no room for power-hungry gaming to hide. And with major tech sites predicting that the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 will use more power than any mainstream console ever manufactured, environmentally conscious gamers may soon need a proper alternative. 

I don’t know if cloud computing is the future of gaming, but whether games are played on home consoles or remote servers there’s no way they can rely on guzzling billions of kilowatts of only partially renewable energy for much longer. If gaming in the cloud really is more energy efficient than gaming on a console, then games companies need to start spreading the news. If they’re not, then they need to get there fast or risk ‘the future of gaming’ being left behind.