Let’s get the concessions out of the way first.
Yes, the environment is good, and should be preserved. To that end, environmentalists have every right to sound the alarm when it comes to ecological threats, real or perceived. And yes, our beloved game consoles suck up quite a bit of power.
But this new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council, innocuously titled "Lowering the Cost of Play" but spun by the group’s PR into the more venomous "New Report: Video Games are Energy Drains," is disgraceful in method and message. The money stat here is that the country’s video game consoles eat up roughly as much energy per year as the city of San Diego. Unfortunately, this claim relies on pure conjecture, and the implication is backed by otherwise shoddy pretenses.
The linchpin assumption is that 50 percent of America’s video game consoles are left on when they’re not in use. In the actual study the NRDC freely admits they found no surveys, polls or statistics to back this wildly speculative claim. They don’t tell you that in the press release. "While we are unaware of any user data revealing the percentage of users who turn off their consoles after use, we have found anecdotally that many users leave their consoles on all the time," the study says.
Excuse me? Anecdotally, my Xbox 360 gets turned off after play because it’s loud — itself a clue that my utility bill will skyrocket if I don’t power down. Anecdotally, the study has already been ripped apart for this very assumption. More perplexing is how the NRDC cites Nielsen survey findings that console owners who account for 75 percent of total playing time shut down their systems after 5 hours and 45 minutes, and that’s only on the days they play. The 50 percent estimate seems to conflict with those survey results.
The study’s underlying data is, in turn, tainted by the NRDC’s estimate. Currently, the most popular console in the U.S. is the Playstation 2, which uses far less energy than the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. The assumption, still, is that half of all gamers will leave their systems on, 24 hours a day, regardless of which console they own. The claim that consoles’ power consumption equals that of San Diego rests of on the idea that half of even the most power hungry systems are on all the time. This doesn’t account for the possibility that next-gen gamers are aware of their system’s energy use or will at least shut down the consoles because they create noise.
Further, the study dismisses a built-in "auto-off" feature on the Xbox 360 because users have to activate it manually (boo hoo). Then, the NRDC has the gall to spend whole paragraphs describing how the PS3′s only power-saving feature is Folding At Home, only to admit in a separate text box that Sony added auto-off in a recent firmware update (Darn. You almost caught them red-handed). Folding at Home, by the way, researches protein folding and its links to disease while the PS3 sits idle — hardly a waste of energy.
We journalists tend to appreciate studies by non-profit organizations. They’re great for quick and easy stories; after all, most of the research is already done. The problem arises when an organization, even with the best intentions, distorts the facts to grab headlines. I loved the data about wattage use inside this study. Kudos to project manager Noah Horowitz for testing our consoles and bringing to light some great information. But I’ve got to wag my finger at the way the information was handled.
For the sake of getting even, here’s some unfounded speculation of my own: Until the economy hit rock bottom, green living and environmental defense were the hot button issues of the day. Now that America’s hearts and minds are back in the right place (our wallets), nobody cares about saving the environment. This study from the NRDC, particularly how its flacks touted it, reads as little more than a desperate cry for attention.
Congratulations, you fearless defenders of Mother Earth. You’ve succeeded in that regard, but only at the cost of your credibility.