Unity’s sustainability head wants to help video games go green


In July, 2022, a conference focused on the social impact of games convened a panel called “Epic Quest? Engaging Gamers On Climate Change.” The speakers included representatives from two video game studios and Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communication, and was hosted by Marina Psaros, head of sustainability at Unity Software.

The sustainability officer is an increasingly common presence in the video game industry, at both billion dollar mobile game giants such as Rovio and publishing start-ups like Kinda Brave. Psaros is one such hire, tasked with steering the company behind one of the world’s leading video game engines in a greener direction.

The job is a challenging one, and Psaros’s work lives at the focal point of the industry’s environmental contradiction. Her employer, a software developer, wants a smaller environmental footprint. But the industry — fans and peer companies alike — demands higher fidelity graphics powered by more advanced software and hardware, the production of which involves many carbon-intensive industrial processes. One approach the industry has turned to as a stopgap is engaging fans on the issue of global warming through play.

This isn’t a new idea, but it’s one that’s picking up steam. Niantic, the maker of “Pokémon GO” and one of the panel’s guests, has used the real-world setting of its smash-hit augmented reality game to spearhead tree-planting and litter-picking initiatives. Ubisoft, meanwhile, is set to unleash a virtual forest fire on “Riders Republic” players in a bid to raise awareness of increasingly commonplace arboreal disasters. The hope with each is that they might help foster a new generation of ecologically-minded citizens, that such video games might function a little like Aesop’s fables of Ancient Greece — as tools of moral instruction.

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Over Zoom, the San Francisco-based Psaros, who co-authored a recent book on coasts and ocean areas under threat from the climate crisis, refers to the idea of using games to “educate, inform, and empower” players as “tantalizing,” albeit stressing that such initiatives must be guided by evidence rather than good intentions alone. Having helped plan for how the Bay Area might adapt to climate change while working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration before implementing a clean energy program for the city of San Francisco, she well knows the importance of numbers directing such efforts.

“There’s a lot of great data about monetizing games,” Psaros says. “[But] thinking about the data-driven lens on supporting behaviors that are pro-environment is something we haven’t really done yet.”

In a bid to gauge interest on the subject, Psaros and her employer Unity commissioned Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communication to produce a report digging into gamers’ attitudes toward climate change (part of a fund reserved for efforts focusing on sustainability). Surveying 2,034 adults, 35 percent of whom were millennials with a relatively even spread (approximately 20 percent) of Gen Z, Gen X, and boomer participants, the study found that 70 percent of players are worried about global warming. 56 percent, meanwhile, think the gaming industry has a responsibility to act on the issue, doing what it can to reduce its own carbon footprint.

What the study didn’t test was the effectiveness of so-called “green nudges” found within video games (a report on this, Psaros said, should appear later in the year through the UN-backed Playing For The Planet program). One concern around such nudges is that they can be deployed cynically to paper over potentially lackluster efforts of companies to decarbonize — content that functions, in effect, as greenwashing.

“There’s definitely the potential for greenwashing,” Psaros says. “If a company is putting climate-friendly messages in their games but not taking care of their own environmental footprint, that’s really not okay.”

The video game industry, by virtue of the mined-metal circuit boards and guzzling power of high-end electronic devices used for both playing games and making them, as well as the electricity used to power data centers that are now indispensable to the every aspect of the industry (including the online multiplayer battle royale titles whose production Unity is tailoring its tools toward), has a duty to tackle its carbon emissions perhaps more than any other form of entertainment. Indeed, one researcher estimates the gaming industry’s total emissions for 2020 could have been as high as 15 million tons of CO2 equivalent emissions; put another way, if the games industry were its own country, it would have been approximately the 130th-most-intense emitter in the world that year, approximately that of Slovenia, a country with a population of 2.1 million.

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Under Psaros, Unity has made considerable strides toward sustainability. It’s become carbon neutral (helped by offsetting, or investing in environmental projects to balance out its carbon footprint) with 60 percent of its 45 offices using renewable energy, including some at 100 percent, she later confirms via email.

But while it’s relatively straightforward taking care of a company’s Scope 1 and 2 emissions (i.e. direct emissions from sources that are owned or controlled by an organization, and those stemming from its energy procurement), Scope 3 — the result of activities from assets not owned or controlled by the reporting organization — is altogether more difficult to pin down. The vast network of data centers that supports a global software company such as Unity contributes hugely to this emissions number.

However, as a major buyer of such cloud services, the company is in a genuinely influential position to effect change regarding the electricity that powers it.

“I want Unity to be doing what Salesforce and Google does, which is demand signaling,” Psaros said, referring to the increasingly common practice of notifying energy providers that renewable electricity is the preferred type of energy supply. “I get really excited when I think about power purchase agreements.”

Within Unity’s company walls, one burgeoning research area is the energy efficiency of the software itself. Psaros confirms there are lab groups at Unity investigating precisely this, but part of the challenge involves reconciling the goals of sustainability and energy efficiency — “learning to speak the language of engineering teams,” as Psaros puts it.

The sustainability head mentions the fidelity arms race — the idea that the “second you have any energy-saving here, someone’s like, ‘Let’s make it more photorealistic over there.’ ” Indeed, there are concerns among journalists that graphical fidelity is overtaking energy savings as a priority at a time when precisely the opposite should be happening. If rumors about the new generation of Nvidia graphics cards are accurate, they could gobble up more than 800W — an enormous amount of power, generating lots of heat and requiring more potent cooling solutions.

As the maker of software for building video games, Unity is well-placed to drive optimization efforts alongside hardware companies. Are discussions happening between software and hardware manufacturers about ways to improve energy efficiency?

“Those conversations are starting,” Psaros said, albeit declining to name which hardware companies are involved.

Part of what’s needed, she continued, is simply better quantification. “We don’t even have that great data on energy usage. Finally now, I feel like there’s a lot of engineers who are really engaged on this issue. They have so much of the knowledge that’s needed to get better performance data.”

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Still, despite the promising start, these kinds of efforts can often feel like tinkering around the edge of a gaming industry that is fundamentally predicated on the idea of more: More graphical fidelity, more players, more power, more extraction of rare earth minerals to build processors and graphics cards; indeed, more generations of hardware built on the notion of technological obsolescence. Unity, which positioned itself at the forefront of the “democratization” of games in the 2010s, arguably the game engine of choice for developers in the indie scene, has more recently made a concerted push into the realm of eye-popping photorealism with tech demos such as “Enemies” and “Lion,” pitching to both AAA game studios and Hollywood VFX (just as Epic has done with Unity competitor Unreal Engine).

The software company is now decisively at the bleeding edge of the most power-hungry type of mainstream, high-fidelity gaming. How, then, does Psaros reconcile Unity’s commitment to such graphically intensive games with the company’s desire to be taken seriously on the environment?

“I don’t have an answer for you. I really don’t think I’m able to come up with something off the cuff because, you know, my initial reaction is that you’re correct,” Psaros said. “It’s correct that there are energy hogging processors. Every time a new device comes out, everyone’s always chasing that new device. And so, how can we support creators and developers in being backward compatible, and not always chasing that? I don’t know what the levers are there.”

It remains to be seen whether the apparent friction between Unity’s business practices and its sustainability efforts can be resolved. Such tension clearly isn’t lost on Psaros. However, the sustainability head is forthright about the place of her own committed environmentalism within the context of a multibillion dollar technology company.

“I wrestle with these questions by getting in those rooms with engineers, and thinking [them] through, doing those life-cycle assessments, really speaking their language,” Psaros says. “I’m supported by the commitments that we’ve already made publicly. There’s so much downward pressure on corporations that I feel, as a sustainability advocate, I’ve got a tail wind.”

Lewis Gordon is a video game and culture writer. His work has appeared in outlets such as VICE, The Verge, The Nation and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter @lewis_gordon.