Downloading Games Might Not Be Better for the Environment After All, Study Finds

New study looks at the carbon emissions generated from downloading a game versus buying a physical copy at a store.

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Traditional logic has held that downloading games over the Internet is better for the environment than buying games at the store--a process which requires the game to be manufactured, distributed, and then purchased at the store. In fact, a new study has found this is not the case.

The newly published study, The Carbon Footprint of Games Distribution (PDF, via IGN), explores the carbon emissions produced by a game over the course of its life. Looking at PlayStation 3 games in the UK, the study compares two different models for distributing games: downloads and traditional retail store distribution, the latter of which includes the manufacturing of a Blu-ray disc, but none of the emissions from the construction of buildings and vehicles used in the process.

Despite what's been found previously, the study indicates the belief that downloading games produces a lower carbon emission is mistaken, at least for the UK since 2010. This is also "expected" to be the case for the US, though to a lesser degree because of the higher "carbon impacts of production and distribution" of discs in Europe.

There is an exception to this: games that are less than 1.3 GB in size prove to have a lower footprint when downloaded. Factors like increased Internet speeds will have an effect on the situation as time goes on, but the study also notes the increasing file sizes of games may offset that. Likewise, consumer behavior--like taking the bus or driving to the store to buy a game and nothing else--also plays a role in how much better physical distribution is for larger games.

The researchers responsible for the study acknowledge these results "are unlikely to change or influence consumer behaviors," but do offer a recommendation for those hoping to be mindful of the environment when playing games: "Usage accounts for the largest share of the carbon emissions of games, which is far more relevant for consumers, and users would be well advised to consider their usage behavior, such as maintaining auto power-down settings."

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