Nearly everything modern humans do as individuals has some larger impact on the Earth's climate, and gaming is no exception. Power-sucking consoles and PCs require quite a bit of power over their lifetimes, which has to come from somewhere. One might think console-free video game streaming services like Xbox's Project xCloud and PlayStation Now would solve this problem, but their relationship with the environment is more complicated than that.

The idea of streaming as "cloud gaming" obfuscates the fact that streamed games have to be processed in a physical place. Project xCloud games played via Game Pass don't just come to players' devices from thin air; all streaming does, essentially, is move the console further away from the screen, and this distance means streaming requires more power than playing locally.

Speaking to Polygon, University of Bristol Professor of Sustainability and Computer Systems Chris Preist explained the difference between streaming games and other internet data usage like this: Cloud computing generally requires a lot of processing power from either data centers or from internet infrastructure networks, but cloud gaming needs both, as it must "process data and render video in real-time, in addition to responding to a userís inputs when they press buttons on a controller," Polygon said.

As a result, a growth in the popularity of streaming would mean gaming in general has a worse impact on Earth's climate. A 2020 Lancaster University study, as reported by Polygon, used models to predict the environmental impact of game streaming by 2030. The researchers found that, if game streaming is adopted by 90% of gamers, gaming's carbon emissions will increase by 112%, and even if only 30% of gamers switch to streaming, gaming carbon emissions will still see a 29.9% increase.

How Game Streaming Could Actually Help The Environment (Temporarily)

Mitigating these high emissions is largely up to Microsoft, Sony, and other streaming hosts like Google, as they will need to adopt sustainable energy sources for their data centers in order to help reduce carbon output. At the same time, consumers may be able to help by being mindful about how they use streaming services. A Sony study (via backed up the Lancaster University research, finding streamed games emit an estimated 0.149kg of CO2 per hour, more than both downloaded and disc-based PS4 games. However, the study also found that, for games played for less than eight hours, game streaming has lower carbon emissions than downloads.

While this likely varies based on the size of the particular download and exactly how long it's played (and it may be worth waiting for more research to emerge before making definitive moves), it does give gamers at least some agency in managing their streaming's environmental impact. For large, AAA games, streaming could potentially be a way to avoid unnecessary carbon emissions. With unlimited access to many streamed games via services like Game Pass, players could try AAA games they're unsure about purchasing for less than eight hours, then decide whether they want to play them for at least another eight hours, optimizing both spending and environmental impact. As streaming becomes more prevalent on the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S, researching the carbon footprint of these kinds of decisions will only become more important.