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Pokemon
Image: Eduardo Woo

Pokemon-GO provides a lesson in energy misuse

Nintendo’s augmented reality (AR) game Pokemon-GO has become something of a craze around the world.  The game involves players using their smartphones to find and capture virtual creatures (Pokemon) that appear on screen as if they were in the same real-world location as the player.

While much of the media attention on the game has focussed on the large numbers of players descending on, and inconveniencing particular public locations, mass participation has resulted in less obvious problems.  Mark P. Mills at Forbes reports that:

“When Pokémon was launched in first week of July this year, the resulting digital traffic expanded so fast that it strained the Cloud servers and even necessitated delaying a launch in Japan to first ensure adequate—i.e., a physically bigger—infrastructure.”

This is not just an issue with server space.  The entire cloud based information and communications infrastructure consumes around a fifth of global energy.  So when something new – like Pokemon-GO comes along, it has an impact on energy supplies and greenhouse gas emissions.

How big an impact?   According to Mills, just the energy used in playing the game is the equivalent of adding an additional 20,000 cars to the world’s congested roads.  That is just the up-front impact.  Given the amount of walking involved, the game will also result in additional 100 million pairs of shoes having to be replaced this year – the equivalent energy cost of another 100,000 cars.  Then there are the smartphone handsets themselves:

“If AR gaming is responsible for inspiring a 1 percent increase in the number of smartphones manufactured, the extra energy/carbon footprint would be equal to at least another 100,000 cars added to the world’s roads.”

All told, then, Pokemon-GO and its imitators could easily add the energy/carbon footprint equivalent of quarter of a million cars to our already strained and highly polluting energy system.  Of course, as Mills concedes, AR games are relative minnows in comparison to Netflix, Google and Apple.  Watching just one hour of live high definition sport is the energy equivalent of running two modern refrigerators:

“The point of all this is to illustrate a simple admonition: There is no free lunch in energy with anything. It takes energy to manufacture hamburgers and hard drives, and energy to cook the former and operate the latter. It takes energy to grow soybeans and silicon wafers, heat office buildings and cool data centers.”

The problem is that so much of the energy/emissions in the so-called “knowledge economy” take place out of sight; allowing us to pretend that the only energy consumption involved is the tiny amount of power needed to recharge a smartphone.  Perhaps it will only be the day the grid goes down and the wifi switches off that we will realise just how energy-depndent (and fragile) the system really was.

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