How 2.4 billion gamers might help save the planet

The fastest growing media platform in the world can be harnessed to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals, a new report from the UN Environment has found.

boys playing video games
Young boys play video games in Cebu, Philippines. Image: AdamCohn, CC BY-SA 2.0 via IFPRI Flickr

Some 2.4 billion people play video games on computers, consoles and phones. Defying stereotypes, gamers are diverse in terms of age, gender and even geography, with gaming hot spots including countries like China, the United States, India, Nigeria and Vietnam.

With so many players worldwide, video games present an opportunity for boosting environmental awareness and action, according to a new report from UN Environment and GRID-Arendal, “Playing for the Planet: How Video Games Can Deliver for People and the Environment.”

“Video games — if seen and approached as serious and transformative tools — could empower billions to contribute to urgently needed solutions” to climate change and other environmental crises, the report says. It offers seven strategies for moving in that direction:

1. Nudge players toward environmental awareness and action.  

Game developers can incorporate environmental messaging into the fun. For example, Pokémon Go, an augmented reality game that users play on their smartphones, offered in-game rewards when players participate in Earth Day cleanups. RuneScape, a massively multiplayer online roleplaying game, partnered with United for Wildlife and gave an in-game pet to players who correctly answered questions on a rhino conservation quiz.

Another option? “Reminding players to switch off or reset console defaults so that they consume less power (in exchange for points) could be a quick-fire way to save energy,” the report says.

2. Organise impact campaigns with a focus on sustainability. 

Companies can highlight environmental concerns in many ways, such as donating a portion of revenue from game sales to conservation causes or releasing adapted versions of games and characters that support environmental awareness.

If industry leaders team up for concerted, monthlong efforts to spotlight particular environment-related themes, they can raise awareness around important issues. Such campaigns could not only bring attention to environmental concerns but also promote participating game titles.

3. Raise money for global causes. 

In April 2016, for instance, Apple donated money from the sales of certain apps to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). In-app purchases or free media space could also help raise money for environment-related causes.

4. Combat e-waste and embrace energy efficiency. 

Since making and shipping cartridges, discs and packages produces greenhouse gases, use of digital downloads rather than physical, packaged games can reduce climate impacts. Ditto for gaming consoles that have energy efficiency settings as the default.

The report also calls on companies to cut down on e-waste. This can include educating customers, recycling the waste through buyback programs and lobbying for public policies to support a more sustainable circular economy.

5. Incentivise games that spotlight sustainability. 

While they can also be entertaining, so-called “serious games” seek to send a message or let players explore nuanced concepts related to sustainability. Government incentives such as subsidies or tax breaks could encourage developers to create serious games with an eye toward the environment. For example, the U.S. Department of Education helped fund Eco, an online multiplayer game that challenges players to build a civilisation on a virtual planet and reckon with how their use of resources affects the ecosystem.

6. Use personalities and incentives to promote the environment. 

The report floats the idea that sustainability stakeholders could work with gaming stars, “who have a massive reach and influence on young people,” to promote “climate smart” behavior. Some gaming stars have millions of subscribers on YouTube, so the potential impact is huge.

The gaming industry could also help out with efforts such as offering an annual award for best environmental game.

7. Get parents involved.

To keep kids connected to nature and help them make good decisions in the digital world, the report calls on parents to engage with their children around gaming. “If parents approach these challenges with their children, video games can help us leave the planet on a better trajectory than the one it has been on since we were born,” the report says. “We can learn and do most, in the healthiest way, if (outdoors and in) we play together with our children.”

This story was written by Andrew Urevig and published with permission from

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