They suck down $10 billion worth of electricity a year, and that number's poised to double if we don't start thinking efficiently.
Gaming is continuing to boom, especially computer gaming. By the end of 2016, sales of PC games are expected to overtake sales for console games, though both will remain massive markets, worth $29 billion and $28 billion, respectively. Unfortunately, the trend comes with a cost—gaming computers are tremendous energy hogs.
A new study published in the journal Energy Efficiency finds that worldwide, gaming computers suck down $10 billion worth of electricity (or 75 terawatt hours) a year. Given that sales rates are projected to double by 2020, that figure is expected to do the same. The study finds that while gaming computers comprise just 2.5 percent of personal computers worldwide, they account for 20 percent of global computer energy use.
Evan Mills, a UC Berkeley energy researcher and the study's co-author, calculates that "a typical gaming computer uses 1,400 kilowatt-hours per year, or six times more energy than a typical PC and 10 times more than a gaming console."
Worldwide, "it's like 25 standard electric power plants," Mills tells me in an email. Imagine that: 25 massive power plants, the kind that power entire cities, running their electricity directly to people playing Counter-Strike and League of Legend. "It's also like 160 million refrigerators, globally. Or, 7 billion LED light bulbs running 3 hours per day."
Meanwhile, Mills found that simply by switching some settings and replacing a few components, gamers could reduce their energy use by 75 percent—actually improving performance and reliability in the process—enough to amount to energy savings of $18 billion annually by 2020, or enough to take 40 giant 500-megawatt coal plants offline, which is fairly crazy.
Gamers outfit their rigs with much more energy-intensive gear than do typical computer users: super-fast graphics cards, powerful processors, high-res monitors, and lighting mods. All of which accounts for the serious energy drain.
"Your average gaming computer is like three refrigerators," Mills said. "When we use a computer to look at our email or tend our Facebook pages, the processor isn't working hard at all. But when you're gaming, the processor is screaming."
"The gaming PC spends much more time in peak power mode (CPU and GPU firing)," he tells me, "because of the nature of gaming—national average is 4.4 hours/day (nearly 20 percent of the day). For a standard PC it's far, far less because just web browsing and things like that are not compute-intensive (about 1 percent of the time at peak)."
Mills, who became interested in the subject when his son started getting into gaming, is highlighting the energy savings opportunities, not the power drain. He notes that motherboards, hard drives, peripherals could all have efficiency ratings—right now, only displays and power supplies do, and they're voluntary.
To further the cause, Mills and his son have launched a website, Greening the Beast, to help gamers choose more energy efficient settings and gear. The researchers themselves managed to build hyper-efficient machines that performed just as well as the standard-bearing, energy-draining PCs, with little effort.
As we game our way into the Anthropocene, we'll have to consider every major energy hog in our homes, and our engines of recreation are no different. (The gaming industry in the US alone is projected to grow 30 percent, to nearly $20 billion, by 2019.) Residential energy use currently accounts for 18 percent of the world's power drain, and clearly, gaming computers are a small but growing piece of the pie. It's yet another activity we can, and should, retool to do sustainably, at little or no cost to the modern experience.