Is Call of Duty bad for the environment?

New survey says that online game playing could be harmful to the environment.

a boy in a yellow t shirt playing on a console

Monday, 7 September, 2020

World at war.

A recent study from Lancaster University predicts that if gaming moves entirely online, carbon emissions will rise catastrophically. The survey predicts that carbon emissions could rise by 30%.

Microsoft, Google and Playstation are increasingly focussing on game streaming services. Recently, Microsoft have announced the launch of their game streaming service which will be compatible with mobiles. So it seems inevitable that the future of gaming is online.

Online gaming, or ‘cloud gaming’ aims to provide the graphics and performance of hardware consoles without the expense, updates or downloads. Essentially all the heavy lifting will be done on servers and beamed into your console.

And this is where the issue lies.


Instead of a high powered PC or console, cloud gaming means high performance games can be run on basic devices. The software runs in a data centre which is then sent to the device via superfast broadband or 5G.

This means that graphics and sound processing capabilities of the console or PC can be much lower. Which will massively decrease the price for gaming in the future, and probably making it more popular.

However, this cheap cost for consumers comes at a price – the environment.

Bleak prediction.

The study from Lancaster University looked at three possibilities of cloud gaming. First, where it remains at the current level; then more popular and lastly where 90% of gamers use the cloud. All of these scenarios were judged over the period of a decade.

After the decade-long period, it was estimated that emissions would be 30% higher per year. This was if cloud gaming became so popular it became the mainstream (90%).

But why?

The reason cloud gaming would increase emissions so much is because of the amount of data centres it would require. The entire process between data centres, fibre cabinets, fibre cable, network infrastructure could involve thousands of computers.
However, some say this estimate is too high. The Lancaster study tried to account for the carbon savings of fewer plastic consoles being made. Again, this was an estimate.

Another point to raise is that the study only looked at streaming in 720p and 1080p (current standard sizes).
The study warns that “If streaming at 4K resolution becomes widespread, then it may well be game over”.

Not so bad?

Another study in 2016 found slightly less catastrophic results. The study by the Green Gaming project, at the US Department of Energy, found that cloud gaming would use only 17% more energy. However, this study is older and was only estimating to 2021.

Microsoft claims that its cloud servers “are more power efficient than a standard home console”. They also highlight that their servers are shared by multiple users “which creates significant energy reduction”.

These small amounts of energy reduction aren’t going to offset years of climate damage. The greatest myth is of the individual carbon footprint, so don’t feel too guilty for streaming Xbox live. Ultimately there isn’t much we can do – except pressure on big companies to change their mammoth carbon footprints.

Natalie Dunning author picture


Natalie Dunning is a freelance writer and Media Psychology researcher based in Manchester.