Exploring Sustainability in Gaming: The Impact and Initiatives of Pokémon GO

The global conversation around sustainability has become increasingly prominent in recent years, and for good reason. The state of our planet, plagued by climate change, resource depletion, and ecological crises, necessitates urgent action. The importance of sustainability cannot be overstated, as it affects not only our environment but also our mental well-being and the role of the gaming industry in shaping a sustainable future.

Why discuss Sustainability?

Sustainability is more than a buzzword; it is a global imperative. It encompasses the responsible use of resources, the preservation of biodiversity, and the minimization of environmental harm. Embracing sustainability is crucial for safeguarding our planet’s future, mitigating the impacts of climate change, and ensuring a high quality of life for all.

As discussions about climate change and environmental degradation intensify, so does a lesser-discussed phenomenon: eco-anxiety. This emotional response to the overwhelming realities of the climate crisis is real and increasingly prevalent. Individuals may experience feelings of helplessness, despair, and fear about the future. However, channelling this anxiety into meaningful action can be a powerful force for change.

How does this link to Pokémon GO?

The gaming industry has a substantial environmental footprint, with data centres, hardware production, and energy consumption contributing to its impact. However, it also holds great potential to promote sustainability. Many companies in the industry are taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint, embrace renewable energy, and implement eco-friendly practices. Players, too, have a part to play in this transformation by making sustainable choices in their gaming habits, whether it be through hardware choices, responsible gaming, or supporting eco-conscious gaming companies.

Niantic and Sustainability

Niantic, the company behind Pokémon GO, has recognised the importance of sustainability and has made several commitments to reduce its environmental footprint. In 2019, Niantic pledged to offset 100% of its carbon emissions, a significant step toward reducing the game’s environmental impact. They have also committed to using clean energy to power their game servers and to incorporate eco-friendly practices into their company culture. Niantic’s pledge to offset its carbon emissions demonstrates a commitment to sustainability and sets a positive example for the gaming industry as a whole.

Every April during their annual Sustainability campaign, Niantic Explorers care for their local communities. In the past few years, hundreds of thousands of players across 41 countries and 6 continents have collected and responsibly disposed of nearly 200 tons of rubbish. They’ve also planted hundreds of thousands of trees. Niantic have also partnered with the UNWTO to encourage global exploration and travel in a sustainable and universally accessible manner.

Niantic Partners with United Nations World Tourism Organization: Tourism through Real-World Games

The following is an exert from an article where we discussed Michael Steranka’s interview with PvP content creators Caleb Peng and SpeediestChief2.

A community member asked about the carbon footprint of the game, since the only way for rural players to play is to drive to a city, and raid trains are a thing.

  • Steranka says they try to build Pokémon GO that encourages the opposite of that, such as speed-locking.
  • He claims that examples like raid trains are more for “top couple percent” of players, and that a lot more players are encouraged to “go out and walk” through playing, which he thinks is the larger impact the game has made.
  • He says carbon footprint is something Niantic takes seriously, and cites open street events and Earth Day as examples.

So, how sustainable is Pokémon GO?

Niantic’s Side

The sustainability of the game’s servers is a critical consideration. Niantic has pledged to use clean energy for its server infrastructure, which can significantly reduce the environmental impact of running the game. By utilising renewable energy sources, they decrease the carbon footprint associated with server maintenance. As the company grows and expands its user base, it is crucial to maintain this commitment and continue seeking innovative solutions for sustainability.

In 2021 Google shared a blog post featuring Pokémon GO and explaining how Pokémon GO’s backend infrastructure works, and we broke it down in this article.  Pokémon GO’s backend stack is not built from a single server or many servers. It’s a collection of microservices living in the cloud, cloud-based servers have less of an impact on the environment than physical servers for several reasons:

  1. Resource Sharing: In cloud computing, many users share the same set of servers and resources. It’s like carpooling, where multiple people use one car instead of each having their own. This sharing reduces the overall number of physical servers needed, which in turn means fewer resources are used to produce and run them.
  2. Energy Efficiency: Cloud service providers build data centres with energy-efficient technologies. These data centres are designed to use less electricity and keep the servers cool. Efficient cooling systems and advanced hardware help minimize energy consumption, which reduces the carbon footprint.
  3. Optimized Workloads: Cloud providers can distribute workloads efficiently across their servers. It’s like a chef cooking multiple dishes in one oven, making better use of energy. This workload optimisation reduces wasted computing power and energy.
  4. Scaling: Cloud servers can quickly adapt to changes in demand. They can scale up (like adding more ingredients to a recipe) when more computing power is needed and scale down when it’s not. This flexibility ensures that resources are used efficiently, reducing energy waste.
  5. Maintenance and Updates: Cloud providers are responsible for maintaining and updating their servers. This means they can make improvements and fix issues for many users at once, which is more efficient than individuals or organizations managing physical servers separately.
  6. Location Selection: Cloud providers choose data centre locations carefully, often considering factors like cool climates and renewable energy sources. This helps them reduce the environmental impact and energy consumption of their data centres.
  7. E-Waste Reduction: Physical servers have a limited lifespan, and when they become outdated, they are often discarded, leading to electronic waste (e-waste). Cloud providers can extend the life of their servers through virtualization and upgrading, reducing the need for frequent replacements.
  8. Security and Disaster Recovery: Cloud providers invest in robust security and disaster recovery measures. This helps prevent data loss and environmental damage that can occur if physical servers are compromised or destroyed in accidents or disasters.
Sustainability Week 2023

Niantic holds eco-focused events such as Sustainability Week (previously known as Earth Day). These are huge for sustainability as a whole, as it opens up a resource of education around the topic whilst keeping it fun. The success of Earth Day events in 2018 and 2019, and following Sustainability Weeks have allowed Niantic to partner up with various non-governmental organisations to host cleanup events and engage in long-term impact projects that seek to make a significant positive impact in local communities around the world. They are looking to engage with communities to make a difference over the span of one day and over the long term. By participating in these Earth Day cleanups and learning more about local NGOs, players can have a larger impact on their communities and the health of the planet. Long-term impact projects include educational initiatives for school programs and community organisations, as well as replacing pollution with new plants.

Player Side

In-person Pokémon GO events have both a positive and negative impact on sustainability. They are encouraging social interaction and outdoor activities, fostering a sense of environmental stewardship and connection to local parks and public spaces. Pokémon GO events can lead to increased utilisation of public spaces, which may prompt local authorities to invest in and maintain these areas, making them more environmentally friendly and accessible. However, events such as GO Fest 2023 saw people travelling across the globe to participate. These travelling emissions combined with resource consumption, waste generation, traffic congestion, wildlife disruption and overcrowding are a difficult challenge to face when organising such events. Players must be respectful of their environment when visiting these events and playing/travelling as consciously as possible, but also that Niantic put proper time and planning into how they will support these events with eco-friendly infrastructure.

GO Fest 2023 Osaka

The sustainability of Pokémon GO players largely depends on their individual choices and behaviours while playing the game. On one hand, Pokémon GO encourages players to get outside and explore their surroundings, which can promote physical activity and a greater connection to the natural world. Routes, Daily Incense and Party Play all encourage players to be walking to generate spawns and complete challenges. However, players should also be mindful of their actions while playing.

There has been criticism surrounding players driving to Gyms to battle them or complete raids, or idling/driving slowly in suburbs to encourage spawns or egg hatching. This is clearly not endorsed by anyone as using a phone whilst driving is illegal, but lets take a look at how much of an issue this is.

Transport accounts for around 30% of global carbon emissions, and 48% of these emissions come from cars and vans. This means around 14.4% of global emissions are cars and vans. The tricky part is then working out how much of this is PoGO driving. There are currently around 150 million Pokémon GO users around the world. From a study in 2016,  researchers found that 18% of the tweets studied from a sample of 4,000 tweets indicated a person was playing while also driving their car. To me, almost 1 in 5 people feels like an insanely high amount so I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt going back to Steranka’s comment and take the ‘top couple per cent’ and say 2% of PoGO players drive to raids etc. 2% of the 150 million users is 3 million.

Take 1.474 billion vehicles on the road globally and that equates to about 1 in 500, which takes us to a value of 0.0288% of global emissions are driving Pokémon GO players. These users won’t be solely using their cars for Pokémon GO either, let’s say 1 day a week to account for playing at the weekend or during raid hour. So overall, (give or take) 0.0041% of all human-generated carbon emissions can be attributed to Pokémon GO players. Although this is a small percentage, it equates to 1,521,920 metric tons of carbon dioxide. How much of these emissions could be considered avoidable?

I live in a remote village with no access to footpaths which means admittedly, I have to drive for around 10 minutes to my nearest town to have a good gameplay experience. However, I am conscious of this practice and try to carpool where possible and limit this to only Community Days. It would be interesting to know how many Pokémon GO players are rural and need to travel to their closest town or city to play safely, however, that data is not available to us at this time.

Bearing this in mind, while the following suggestions are valuable in reducing our environmental footprint, it’s essential to acknowledge that not everyone can adopt them due to various limitations such as disability and living in a remote area. Therefore, we encourage environmentally friendly choices that are both safe and feasible for each individual, taking into account their unique circumstances and needs. Do what is safe and accessible for you, even one small change that becomes a habit will make a difference. Importantly, do not criticise others for not doing what you might be able to do. A few sustainable practices for players include:

  1. Walking or cycling: Instead of driving to different PokéStops or gyms, consider walking or cycling if you are able and it is safe to do so. This reduces your carbon footprint and helps you stay active.
  2. Using reusable items: Rather than buying disposable power banks and water bottles, opt for reusable alternatives to minimize waste.
  3. Carpooling or using public transport: When playing in a group and needing to travel, consider carpooling or using public transport to reduce the number of individual vehicles on the road.
  4. Responsible disposal: When discarding items or disposing of waste while playing, use designated bins and follow recycling guidelines.
  5. Support local businesses: Visit local businesses near PokéStops or gyms to support the community and reduce the need for long-distance travel.

How can we be more sustainable?

Pokémon GO has the potential to be a sustainable and environmentally friendly game if players and Niantic work together to reduce its environmental impact. Niantic’s sustainability pledges, combined with conscious efforts by players to adapt their gameplay for sustainability, can help minimise the game’s carbon footprint and set an example for the gaming industry. By making eco-friendly choices while playing, we can enjoy the adventure of Pokémon GO while preserving the planet for future generations.

As players, we can make a conscious effort to adapt our gameplay to be more sustainable. Here are some practical tips:

  1. Reduce screen brightness: Lowering your screen brightness can extend your phone’s battery life and reduce the need for frequent charging.
  2. Play during the day: Playing during daylight hours conserves energy as you won’t need to use phone flashlights or screen brightness to see the game (and it’s generally safer).
  3. Educate others: Encourage fellow players to adopt more sustainable practices and share tips on how to minimise their environmental impact while playing.

We’d love to hear from you!

What sustainable practices have you taken on board to reduce your carbon footprint? Is there anything you would like to see towards sustainability in Pokémon GO in the future?

Author & tags

Hey! I'm phrixu, a Pokémon GO player from the UK. I am dedicated to making Pokémon GO as accessible as possible, to the whole community!

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