10 ways your studio can play for the planet, from Nic Walker

April 23, 2024

Nic Walker is the former COO of Playing for the Planet member Space Ape Games, and has been involved with the Alliance since its origins in 2019. Here, he shares his experience for studios looking to begin their sustainability journey, and explores how the games industry can continue to step up as a leading force for good in the climate crisis.

When I was born, the concentration of CO₂ in the atmosphere was 332 parts per million (ppm). In 2019 when I first started paying attention to how the studio I worked for at the time, Space Ape Games, could look to understand its impact on the environment, it was 410 ppm. This week it sits at 423ppm and by the time you read this it will be higher still.

We have a lot of work to do to fix this! I wanted to take some time to look at the responsibilities of the games industry in this work, particularly its potential to create, distribute, and play games without further harming our planet, while also contributing to the essential mobilisation of society towards sustainability. 

We’ve seen enough white papers and reports over the last 12 months to create a sense of insurmountable complexity to sustainability in games, but this simply isn’t true. Instead, I want to focus on ten things we can already be doing as both individuals and collectives across out industry to help push it towards a sustainable future. Amongst them, I hope you can find some accessible things you can try now, and perhaps a few things that you can aim towards over time.

1: Get your green people talking

In your organisation, over lunch, in Slack and Teams, and at the tail end of Zoom calls, people are talking about sustainability. They’re sharing links, bemoaning the state of the planet, discussing the latest wildfire or statistically improbable weather event. They may feel helpless to do anything, or wish your organisation was doing more. Your task is to connect these people, and harness their pre-existing passion to build a grassroots culture of positive change in your business.

What this looks like in practice is a forum to chat in, like a Slack channel. It looks like a recruitment drive to capture any interested parties. It looks like speaking to the business about what you’re trying to achieve.

The result in time will be a groundswell in the studio of both capability and influence via a body of folk who can do things to further sustainability. The more people acting on and talking about sustainability, the more seriously it will be taken when deciding on budgets and policies.

2. Collaborate as a team

The Ubisoft Barcelona team hosted a hub for The Green Game Jam 2024 Kick-Off event.

Over time, you’ll build a head of steam with your green team. The result will be a group representing diverse roles who you should bias towards action. How can your business do better with what you have right now? Can you donate your time to local environmental causes? Can you identify others in the business who can help? Who could pitch a way to reduce meat consumption, or promote trains over flights, or set up a bike scheme? How can you make it easy for people to switch to green energy at home?

Your bottom line impact will be small (a few hundred people eating a low meat diet is small fry against the bigger picture), but in acting as you wish others to act, your studio will be walking the talk that you can then communicate to your players. At the scale of your player-base, these changes can have measurable real-world impact.

3. Join the Green Game Jam

This year's Green Game Jam hopes to rally a total of 1 million players to participate in doable actions that benefit the planet.

The Green Game Jam is in its fifth year. Its inception came amid a dearth of ideas on how to use the creative power of games to highlight messages about sustainability in games. Initially, there was a fear that forcing green themes into games could seem heavy handed or fall flat, appearing inauthentic, but there have since been dozens and dozens of campaigns, levels, storylines, and other green themes that have been implemented as part of the Green Game Jam, along with a growing knowledge base of quantitative and qualitative data about how they fared.

Entering the jam has therefore become a great way to learn what others have done, and to use the nature of the event to drive your first green activation in your own titles. Beware, though, as there is a risk that entering the Green Game Jam can end up being perceived as “enough” and that, having run your annual activation in one of your titles, you can put your tools down until the subsequent year. I think this is selling the potential of your games and your players short. 

4. Explore your own creative activations

Rider's Republic held gaming's first ever digital climate march in 2022.

Entering the Green Game Jam gives you access to a lot of organisations, individuals, and even technologies that can help pave a way for your games to add awesome green activations. Sometimes, though, you might be inspired to work on something that doesn’t fit within the boundaries of the Green Game Jam. Maybe it’s timing, maybe it’s the theme, or maybe something else. This shouldn’t stop you!

The potential here is enormous. Let’s imagine you have a game with a million players that you can influence in some way. Perhaps it’s by getting them to commit to reducing the amount of meat in their diets for a month. What’s that worth to the planet?  If you convince one person to move from a high meat diet to a vegan diet, you’re looking at a saving of 1560kgCO2 a year1. If you can convince 1% of your user base to try that for just a month? That could be 1300T of CO2 saved, the ballpark emissions of a small to mid-sized games studio. Now we’re talking impact.

Start asking yourself what you can do with a blank slate, to encourage the right kinds of actions among your player base. The Green Game Jam has lots of ideas and experience, but don’t be afraid to use it as part of a portfolio of activations across multiple games throughout the year.

5. Plan your climate calendar

Industry events such as gamescom can also be a great venue for launching new activations.

If you run events in games, you’ll know the calendar is king. You’ll be hooking on to seasonal celebrations such as Halloween, Christmas, or the Lunar New Year. There are a whole bunch of environmental days scattered throughout the year that you can use to help theme events and drive awareness. Look ahead and pick out some that might fit well with your plans. Earth Hour, Earth Day, and World Environment Day are all-encompassing days, but what about oceans, wetlands, or climate action? There’s days for all those too!

6. Measure your carbon footprint

Our latest report attempts to identify the biggest sources of emissions in games, clarify who is liable for them, and determine new areas to address in the years ahead.

You can’t fix what you can’t measure. Every business in games should be taking time out to understand their carbon footprint. Once you know the size of your impact on the climate, you can decide how to minimise it. If you’re small, use a carbon calculator. There are a growing number out there and Playing for the Planet is set to release such a tool for small to medium sized games businesses later this year. Carbon calculators are a great way to get started, but bear in mind that they will only tend to capture the bigger pieces of your carbon puzzle. There’s a lot of devil in the detail, icebergs of outsized sources of carbon emissions in your organisation. The important thing is to iterate, and improve year on year.

To go beyond using a carbon calculator, or if you’re a larger business in the first place, you might want to talk to a specialist partner to help you root out those different sources of emissions. It will likely be a smoother path than learning the ropes and outfitting a team internally. There’s a lot of detail-work here, and the nature of greenhouse gas accounting is that it touches all parts of the business. This can easily be a tough task for opaque organisations. This is a good time to leverage your green allies in the business to help build bridges and get the information you need.

There’s also a maturing set of software platforms that hope to help you measure and track your business carbon emissions. I haven’t used these, but folks like PlanA, Normative, and Greenly have platforms and sometimes professional services to take away some of the heavy lifting. There’s a lot of detail-work involved in measuring your footprint, and the nature of greenhouse gas accounting is that it touches all parts of the business. This can easily be a tough task for opaque organisations. This is a good time to leverage your green allies in the business to help build bridges and get the information you need.

7. Set ambitious goals and share them

Playing for the Planet members share their year-on-year emissions reporting via our Annual Impact Report.

Measuring your footprint is a lot, huh? Let me say it again, though. It’s better to get a footprint that’s rough and ready than spend all year getting one that’s accurate. Get one together, and iterate year-on-year. One of the biggest things I had to get comfortable with when working on this was the sheer intangibility of it all; everything is a guess, and a lot of that guessing is sanctioned by the standards! “If you can’t be accurate, take a guess” is the advice, it seems, and that’s just fine. 

One of the reasons to err on the side of accuracy, though, is because with a detailed accounting of your carbon footprint, you can visualise the impact of the actions you take. If you don’t measure green energy use in your teams’ home offices, for example, then it’s impossible to know the impact of any efforts you make to convert people to green tariffs. 

So, set goals. Set the most ambitious ones you can. Your teams and colleagues will appreciate your commitment, it’ll help to know that you’re doing the right thing, moving forward, and being progressive.  Setting ambitious goals might mean something different to you than it does to someone else. In your unique context moving the needle 2% on a target might be a huge achievement. There might be political hurdles, or financial ones. The important thing is to set goals that feel achievable and measurable.

The gold standard is setting a net zero goal. This is a level of maturity in your carbon accounting and goal-setting that you should aim for. The shorter the horizon for you to reach it, the better. It’s complex, though, and you need a lot of folk on board and, for smaller organisations, the size and complexity of the process might outweigh the benefits you could otherwise be putting that time to.

8. Consider carbon removals

Playing for the Planet's carbon credits resource is based on guidance from the Integrity Council for the Voluntary Carbon Market.

I think I’m in good company with this opinion but because it’s not universally shared, I am filing this under ‘slightly spicy’. I think we should avoid over-relying on carbon offsets in their traditional form and focus on buying as much high quality carbon dioxide removal as possible.

The received wisdom since the day of “carbon neutrality” has been to measure your carbon footprint and buy offsets to atone for your sins. The problem is that carbon offsets don’t solve the problem - the carbon you emitted is still in the air. This has always been a problem but, more seriously, the veracity of many of these carbon offset projects and the organisations that accredit them has been increasingly been called into question234. Within the strictures of net zero, this matters. You can’t be net zero using carbon offsets based on avoidance, like clean cookstoves or water filtration projects. The science simply doesn’t back up the impact of these projects and the rapid decarbonisation we need to accomplish our 1.5C climate goals.

The other side of the problem is that carbon removal is expensive, with the stuff that stores carbon for the longest eye-wateringly so. The good news is that the price is expected to fall over the coming years. So what should you do today? 

At a minimum you should look at buying the longest lasting, highest quality carbon removals for your carbon footprint. If it’s too expensive, scale it back to cover your scope 1 and 2 emissions. For the remainder, source shorter term removals using afforestation. Forestry is notoriously difficult to vet, so follow the leaders in this space - folk with big reputations and well resourced climate teams, like Microsoft.

The Oxford Offsetting Principles is a good read on how they think you should balance removals and avoidance offsets. It categorises offsets based on how they operate - avoidance, reduction or removal - and also the longevity of their impact. Crucially, it offers advice to purchase carbon avoidance in the short term, before purchasing carbon removals on an incremental basis each year. Another good read is Playing for the Planet’s own ten-point checklist for buying carbon credits. 

I personally feel that it should be the other way around - buy the most carbon removals you can reasonably afford and top up to your carbon footprint with avoidance or high quality forestry offsets. The reason it’s not the other way around is probably because all of this ultimately rests on an affordability test and as such will remain a big battle within an organisation. Finding a budget for intangibles like carbon removals is never going to be easy. In this context, setting targets and reducing your emissions in the first place starts to look like the easier path - and I think that’s a good thing!

9. Discuss, learn, and iterate

You aren’t alone. There are people in organisations big and small around the world who are working on the same and similar problems to you. Organising and coalescing around these problems lets us share and learn our way towards solutions faster.

I exhort you to join a climate group. Maybe it’s the Climate special interest group (SIG) for the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), or a green chapter of another regional organisation. It should definitely include the Playing for the Planet Alliance which grants access to some very smart folks indeed, and whose ideas and opinions hugely helped shape my own view of climate and games. 

It’s more, of course, than simply joining a group, jumping into a Slack or Discord and saying hello. There’s real conversations to be had, questions to be asked and answered, opinions to be sought and given. Engage with these groups and they become stronger for your membership.

10. Act now

I want to close by acknowledging a few things about where the games industry is today. We’ve seen a shedding of a huge number of talented industry folk across the world in studios big and small. Much of this can be laid at the door of high interest rates, inflation, and high-profile mergers. Precarious times can leave us wondering if we should be allowing our focus to wander away from our core business of making games. Surely it’s safer to keep our heads down rather than ask for time and money to do the right thing by the planet?

I would counter this with an exhortation to stay the course. The games industry remains a behemoth and will see growth again. We cannot, however, wait for that growth to take action for the climate. Whatever the business landscape, sustainability results in a more efficient business by reducing waste and improving efficiencies. This is a helpful reminder when it seems like sustainability is a purely altruistic endeavour. So, pick your battles, find the right amount of time and investment for the very important business of Playing for the Planet and iterate towards something bigger and better.