The Climate Change Console: Why It's Time For The Last Generation
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You ever have that thing what you realise how radically out of step our everyday lives are with the kind of world we are supposed to be moving towards if we want to avert disastrous climate catastrophe? Taking the bins out and thinking, "shit, that's a lot of plastic". Or driving your car and thinking about how much petrol you and your fellow citizens are burning through and thinking, "fuck, that's a lot of petrol".
I experienced another of those increasingly common disjunctures when the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S came out towards the end of 2020. We already know we are consuming resources faster than the Earth's capacity to regenerate them, and here's another "generation" of gaming consoles that condemn millions of pieces of functioning technology to slide into obsolescence and disuse. In 2019, a Verge article estimated that the PS4 alone was responsible for about 8.9 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere. Now we are doing it again. Then it's time for the next generation. And the next. And the next. And the next. When you hear the IPCC saying its "code red" for humanity when it comes to climate change and then look at this model, does it not just seem insane?
A Future After Obsolescence
There are a whole host of things, far more important than gaming, that are going to have to change if we are going to avert climate catastrophe. However, the production, distribution and consumption of gaming hardware is a small expression of a larger system. If we can imagine what a future where the generational model of manufactured obsolescence that defines gaming (and technology in general) is ended, I think we can get a glimpse at what kind of world we might want to live in. It's hard to conceptualise how much of a radical upheaval an "adequate" response to the climate crisis would be to our everyday lives - business as usual but with solar panels and electric cars just isn't going to cut it. If we can imagine just this little slice of our lives in that light and see how those changes might be for the best, I think there's some value in that.
If the generational model is not the future, then what is? My answer would be: the last generation of videogame consoles. These consoles would have to be modular, allowing for the easy repair and replacement of any broken parts. When a small piece of a console breaks now, its often likely it will get binned and replaced. A modular console would cut down on this, extending the lives of the hardware (the Right To Repair movement is already doing good work in pushing towards this so in one sense we are simply talking about hitting the logical conclusion of where that idea takes us).
"Now wait a second," I hear you say. "You're just describing a PC". Well, you've kind of got me there. PC's are modular and, for the most part, it's fairly easy to replace broken parts. Here we get to the next part of the problem. PCs are trapped in the same cycle of manufactured obsolescence to which consoles are beholden. I look at the PC I'm writing this on and I'm fine with it. I don't really want to replace or upgrade any parts, but in the logic of technological progression, my 1080p monitors are already obsolete. I should at least be running games at 1440p, if not 4k. Of course, that means I would need to upgrade my monitors. Then I'll have to get a new graphics card (assuming the bitcoin miners let one slip through their fingers), and then my processor will probably be bottle-necking performance, so I'll need a new one of those and... well, you get the picture.
This shows us that the solution to this problem is not simply a technological one (the modular console). It requires large changes at a political level to be successful. This isn't the place to go into the details of how that would be achieved or what that would look like, but for the purposes of trying to imagine our alternative console future, lets just say that some kind of limit has been placed on upgrading consumer technology. Our modular Last Generation would have the potential to be easily upgraded, but that's going to have to happen rarely, lest we end up in the PC situation we talked about above. Instead of consoles lasting 5 - 10 years, perhaps we might expect them to last 30 or 40 before they get a significant technological bump. A radical slowing down of our current experience with tech that might initially sound wild, but a far more feasible response to the problem than hoping that making the next generation a little bit more power efficient for the 8 or so years (if that) that you have it will somehow help address climate change.
Liberation Through Constriction
I can imagine many people being aghast in horror at that prospect. But we when examine what that would mean, would it really be that bad? Do you actually like the stuff you've spent loads of money on becoming useless and having to constantly fork out for new consoles, or graphics cards, or monitors, or whatever else? When you buy a new console are you really excited for the console? When it comes down to it, isn't' the thing we care about the games? A new console is only exciting insofar as it means new games and we don't need new consoles to keep making new games.
Putting aside the fact that if its a choice between this and continuing to contribute to the destruction of the Earth's ecosystem then its not really a choice, I would argue that the benefits of a system like this would far outweigh the negatives. Firstly, as I've already suggested, it would greatly reduce the consumption of resources and carbon footprint of gaming. It would also vastly reduce costs and accessibility. If we had one standard of console, with standardised parts that could easily be replaced when they break, the console would become incredibly cheap over time thanks to economies of scale. It would make gaming way cheaper for you and open it up to people who currently struggle to afford it. This would also apply to games development. Games developer Colestia told me he frequently sees indie developers talking about how they struggle to keep up with the costs of staying up to date, working with a laptop that can barely cope with the engine they are trying to make a game on, for example.
Here's a good spot for us to broaden our imaginative framework a little - the kind of system I'm talking about should just be applied to gaming, it should be applied to all consumer technology. To TVs, to mobile phones, to the laptops of those archetypal indie developers I've just talked about. All the same benefits apply: resources are saved, tech becomes cheaper and therefore more accessible to everyone. By placing limits on our consumption, we create a kind of abundance. What might initially seem like constriction is actually liberation. A liberation from consumer desire, from artificial cycles of manufactured obsolescence, from the financial burden of trying to stay up to date.
I'm anticipating another criticism of the future I'm proposing: that limiting technological upgrades for videogames hardware would be curtailing the creative possibilities of an artistic medium. There is a little bit of truth to this -- there are things that games do today that they couldn't possibly have done 30 years ago. However, is it not also true that the generational cycle has taught us that when you give developers more power in the context of a model that requires selling new tech to consumers, what they actually end up doing is pouring those extra resources into creating fancier graphics with more particle effects? To sell the new things, they show us the visuals that are the easiest understandable indicator of why you need the new thing. If there is no new thing to sell, however, you don't need to do that. Freeing developers from that imperative is a form of creative liberation. We also know, thanks to the boom of indie games that are, as a general rule, less reliant on graphical grunt than big-budget titles, that the quality and creativity of games that don't depend on bleeding-edge tech can comfortable match or surpass those that do. Of course, developers always find ways of pushing tech further than is thought possible, so we'd still get incrementally prettier looking games for some time, but its also true that they'd have no choice but to move away from "more graphics" as a way of distinguishing their game.
Artists will often tell you that limits are key to creativity and I think that's exactly what we would find here. Far from limiting the creative and artistic potential of videogames, putting the handbrake on new hardware would unleash it. If you want to distinguish your game from others with visual flare, you'd have to do so by exploring new aesthetic possibilities outside of photorealism. To make your game feel "new", would require new ideas, new genres, new systems. Creativity would be more of a factor than ever in a playing field leveled out by the glacial pace of a reimagined technological frontier.
The last generation of videogame consoles will better for us all.