PC gaming = eco doom?

May 20, 2008

I’ve been PC gaming on and off for the past five years. Getting into writing about videogames, I replaced my quaint old iMac with a then fairly robust PC.

Without any shame I can say that the short list of my best ever cultural experiences includes playing Sony’s now slowly dying Planetside, a game that really merited considerable more acclaim that it ever got. Planetside is a massively multiplayer first-person shooter, and pretty much remains a one of a kind. When it was launched in 2003, it opened up to me the wonders of massively multiplayer online gaming, a source of epic experiences (adventures, battles) and deep camaraderie unparalleled in console gaming.  That segued into playing World of Warcraft, another masterpiece of a game, but one with considerably more dubious qualities (notably as a time-sink. At least with Planetside, a game based of persistent combat played out between three armies, you could jump in and out pretty much at will. In World of Warcrack or other similar MMO role-playing games, you frequently get locked into activities that take several hours and are hard to extricate yourself from due to responsibilities to other players).

Anyways, I kicked World of Warcrack a few times, as I find its pleasures tend to work in cycles – you level a character, it’s easy-going and fun; you hit the level cap, and it all turns into gaming-as-accountancy, with a preponderance of more dedicated players obsessing over statistics and gear, and suggesting – fairly rightly – that you can’t “progress” without a similar obsession.  For me, the cycle this time round has coincided with my PC really reaching the end of its life as a viable games machine.

A lot of friends are moving form WoW to Age of Conan, a new-fangled MMORPG  that requires some pretty hefty graphics processing abilities and whatnot to run at its more impressive graphics settings. My PC has been giving up a fair bit on me recently when it comes to gaming – the most recent chapter of Valve’s masterpiece Half-Life 2 hung on load screens for way too long to really qualify as much fun any more, and the expansion pack to the superb WWII themed real-time-strategy game Company of Heroes just resulted in things grinding to a halt if more than a few dozen little men and tanks were going about their business on my screen.

So I started looking around at replacement PCs. Ones that I could work on (I workfrom home, but that generally only requires basic Word, Outlook and Firefox) but could also handle the latest games with the graphics on their higher settings, and some future-proofing that would mean I could handle upcoming games. Weeks of discussions about components left me slightly better informed (I’m very averagely techie when it comes to PCs; I can help my parents, but need help from my younger, or more experience peers), but a letter in Personal Computer World magazine got me thinking… these bastard machines really are hideously environmentally unsound.

As with so much technology (TVs for example) it’s all about more, bigger, faster, brighter – which equates with more powerful, which of course equates with higher power consumption. If a basic, older laptop can work on 50-100W, a big gaming desktop PC rig seems to push things up to 500W plus. One machine that was suggested as suitable for my budget by one online retailer of bespoked computers had a power supply that could handle up to 1000W. That doesn’t mean it’ll constantly be drawing 1000W, but with the latest, top-of-the-line graphics card, when gaming, the power draw is pretty hefty, Combine that with CPU, harddrive, fan/cooling hardware activity and it’s scary.

So are PC gaming and environmental awareness mutually exclusive? Well, I could get a lower spec machine but it’d be less future-proofed, resulting in more financial outlay sooner rather than later; I could get a high-spec laptop, which would probably halve the power consumption in comparison to a loosely similar level of desktop PC, but they’re expensive (about a third more again), and highly restrictive in terms of upgrading components and extending their lives. And laptops are less comfortable for prolonged writing; I know you can plug in peripherals like more comfortable seperate keyboards and bigger screens but that starts to defeat the object of having a laptop, even a high-spec desktop-replacement gaming laptop, which will big but still kinda portable.

There is some new technology on the way from processor manufacturers – Nvidia’s new Hybrid SLI in the context of desktops would include a function in the GPUs to switch mode between when the PC is being used for demanding activities like gaming (or graphics rendering or whatever) and when it’s being used for basic functions (email, wordprocessing, browsing), thus reducing noise and power consumption. Nvidia call this HybridPower – check it out. It’s hardly going to save the world though.

This really is a bind. I’m a fairly green person – I don’t own a car; we try to be considerate with our domestic energy usage (switch things off at the wall, replace light bulbs with low energy ones, insulate the roof, and all that) etc – but this is an interesting challenge to my principles. For me, PC gaming means hanging out with friends – some men are in sports teams, or spend a lot of time in the pub, but I play games. As well as loving the culture of videogames (something I’ve written about professionally for six years or so, but do less of now after the BBC killed off dear old Collective, their excellent online culture magazine), for me they’re also about socialising. But now that seems to go hand-in-hand with yet another way of making a disproportionate contribution to the slow apocalypse of our age.

My cultural life has generally been about books, comic books, films and games. I don’t do theatre or football. Do I really have to give up a major part of my cultural and social life because it comes with a seemingly ever-increasing eco price tag?


4 Responses to “PC gaming = eco doom?”

  1. bennykenny Says:

    Well dude…did you come up with a solution yet? Do you know the comedian Dara O’Briain? He has the answer to everything…check out his show at the theatre royal on youtube. Lots of answers there…

  2. Gage Says:

    Gage says : I absolutely agree with this !

  3. Ali Says:

    hey dan,

    it seems to me that your footprint is likely to be lower than average without a car and a few compromises and efforts elsewhere might just get you through this obviously trying time buddy.

    There are smart meters like http://www.theowl.com/ which will help pinpoint just how much power you are drawing when gaming also, if you haven’t already, switch your electric supply to a renewable company (never mind the arguments about grid supply) like Good Energy – maybe even consider some micro generation (how bad do you want it)?? Maybe ration your gaming if your footprint is looking too big in any given month and remember working from home on your machine is another big saver – another controversial solution is carbon offsetting like at climatecare.com (I got a certificate for my web server – seems token but I NEED the server so the consumption is happening anyway – offsetting at least reduces emissions elsewhere) – I could ramble about this for a few more pages but will stop for now – keep us updated on how you get on

    and hope to see you soon

  4. I’ve been looking into SFF PCs, where I can get a fair rig but with a less than 500W power supply (like these).

    Another thing that occurred to me – get rid of the huge 5.1 speaker system and just get a basic but good quality 2.0 (Creative are doing some very well-reviewed 2.0 speakers these days). The way my desk is set up, it’s not like I benefit from 5.1, and for a lot of gaming I used headphones. That would considerably reduce the power used by my PC and its peripherals.

    Need to get a meter though yep. Hopefully my missus can get one through her work.

    Wired’s June 2008 issue had an interesting piece about gaming and power consumption. A reader asked “How can I green up my habit” in relation to his WoW addiction (‘Greenwash Thy Avatar, Warcrafter’). Wired’s Mr Know-It-All used some stats worked out in regard to “the average Second Life avatar”. He said it “requires 1248 kilowatt hours of electricity to ‘exist’ for a year – 153kwh for the servers and 1095 for your yours. In terms of carbon emissions, that’s roughly equivalent of driving 1,800 miles in a BMW 750Li.”

    I’ve actually gone back to some console gaming (though I reinstalled Planetside on my PC last night 😉 ) and now that’s got me thinking about console power consumption.

    A bloke called Carl Nelson studied this using a power meter last year for hardcorewar.net.

    The 360 and PS3 are almost as power hungry as his PC, and while the Wii uses very little power in comparison, Nintendo have a terrible record according to Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics, where they’re “way behind” all the others. (This considers companies in “according to their policies on toxic chemicals and recycling”.)

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