Magazines, Games and Trees

Magazines. I have them.

One of my favorite panels at PAX East was on “The Death of Print.”  In this panel John Davidson, the Editor of the new GamePro, raised a point that has worried for me for some time.  Print media seems to be at odds with environmentalism.  The UN says that deforestation is “now widely recognized as one of the most critical environmental problems facing the human society today with serious long term economic, social and ecological consequences.”  John shared a startling statistic: if a print magazine sells 30% of the magazines that it prints, this is considered a success.  That means that 70% of magazines are simply thrown away.

Chris Dahlen, the managing editor of Kill Screen, raised the issue of the magazine as artifact.  The problem with an article on the Internet is that you can’t hold it in your hands.  You can’t put it in a box in your attic and find it twenty years later, brushing off a cloud of dust and swelling with nostalgia.

I love books.  I love the way that they smell and the way that they feel on my thumbs and my index fingers.  I love the sound of a page turning and I love lying on a couch with a book on my chest and a lamp behind me.  Flipping through Kill Screen and GamePro on the bus to Boston was a wonderful experience – the writing was uncommonly good and I didn’t have dozens of banners and tabs distracting me.  If print died a part of me would die with it.

Which is why I struggle with this so much.  Sometimes it seems like art and the environment are at odds and I have to choose a side.

The issue is bigger than just print magazines – video games themselves are by nature unsustainable.  Computers and consoles have dangerous toxins in them that are often illegally recycled overseas, posing serious health and environmental risks.  (Read this.)  Playing games consumes lots of energy, and I’ve bought dozens of games, only rarely considering the environmental implications of my purchases.  I care about the planet, but I deeply care about games as well.  I’ve been struggling to reconcile all of this.

Other mediums like movies aren’t particularly sustainable either, but movies have been vehicles for change more often than games have.  Documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth and Exporting Harm (topical – a 2002 documentary about electronic waste in China) have been able to profoundly raise public awareness about important issues.  We haven’t had our world-shaking game yet.

A view inside the burn houses where women sit by the fireplaces and cook imported computer parts. Guiyu, China. May 2008 ©2008 Basel Action Network (BAN)

The thing is, I think that we can.  Games are an extremely young medium, and we have a lot of room to grow.  Right now, the primary concern in game design is whether or not the player is having fun.  This isn’t the case in other art forms; many movies, paintings, photographs, novels, and plays are crafted to make the viewer uncomfortable, for instance.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for having fun, but why can’t we have other emotional experiences as well?  Why can’t we have a mystery game where we explore a recycling factory in China?

I appreciated John Davidson’s comment because I’m glad to be reminded that other people out there struggle with these things too.  Once a year there’s an exciting festival in New York called Games for Change – it happens in a bit over a month. Unfortunately that’s right before exams, but you should go if you can.  Here at Dartmouth, the tiltfactor lab is focused on game design for social change.  In the coming weeks I’m going to play a few games that are taking risks and pushing the boundaries of what games might be able to be and write about them here.

So those are my thoughts.  I read an article today that deforestation has been on the decline in the past decade – the rate is “remains alarming,” but it’s nice to read good news once in a while.  I have to believe that there is a way for video games and magazines to exist in a healthy world.  What do all of you think about this?

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  1. Has anyone compared the environmental cost of producing a printed magazine – essentially a material cycle you can grasp – with that of an online magazine, in terms of all the hardware that supports it, and the computers and routers in the world burn electrons away spending time transmitting/consuming it? I haven’t – just wondering if such a study has been done.

    The one thing I lament about the death of print is that it drives us further into the throwaway culture enclave. We still have a desire to own and possess things, but the internet means we possess for shorter and shorter periods, moving onto to something else after a palmful of seconds.

    There is also the issue of what the financial model should be for the internet-equivalent of a magazine, but that’s a completely different topic.

    • Come to think of it, I just read this article in the New York Times.

      I worry about disposable culture as well. I think that the magazine’s business model fosters better writing, since there isn’t the same pressure to publish something immediately; the editorial process is much more rigorous. I love the phrase “a palmful of seconds,” by the way.

      • Very interesting link; I wanted more info on step 4, though – I just wonder how it plays out over the long-term. Hopefully there’ll be more data like this coming to light what with the constant drift of media into the digital realm.

      • I re-read the article again and realised some of the info I was looking for was actually there =)

    • I think you’re asking the wrong question. It’s not “how much does this online magazine cost, hardware and all”, it’s “what is the marginal cost of reading this magazine”, because you already have the computer.

      • Actually I was thinking about the server hives necessary to support a digital distribution 24/7. Data centers chew on energy like a mouse through floorboards.

        But it’s not such a stretch to incorporate the end user into the analysis also. Most people like to read on the go which is fleshing out a new hardware market: Kindle, iPad, eReader, etc.

      • Data centers only burn through energy when they are active — it doesn’t cost much energy at all to sit around idle. Data centers are chewing through energy because they are actively serving all sorts of content, of which one additional magazine will only be a minuscule percentage.

      • This all really treads back to my original question: “Has anyone compared…?”

        If suddenly every book in the world were replaced with digital versions, what effect does that have? Is it environment PLUS? Or MINUS? This is not a simple question to answer and the NYT article tried to address it (although the light bulb comment was spurious as it’s not recommended to use any computer in the dark). Because there are a number of aggregated costs which improve as an economy of scale, the cost of “one book” is difficult to ascertain.

        The demand for environmentally-expensive paper would fall, and there would be less newspapers flying around our subway stations like modern tumbleweed, but there would be a global increase in network activity, data center needs with their hunger for cooling [eg., more consumer hardware… it changes things and it’s not a sub-epsilon change.

        The surge in demand for on-line video had a significant impact on ISPs and continues to do so as they try to pump payments out of major streaming video providers for stressing their infrastructure (I have a dim view of this argument myself). This is not to say digital print would affect ISPs, it’s just to illustrate that technological shifts can have all sorts of ramifications.

        I don’t know which side of the coin this falls on. I don’t doubt that this is the future and any love I have for wood pulp is going to become some old man’s eccentric foible. It’s just that one entry often cited in the “pro” column for digital print is the positive environmental impact.

        I had a very brief search online and turned this up:

        This article has a number of interesting links. But I closed the page quickly because I wasn’t sure of the environmental impact =)

  2. Switchbreak

     /  April 14, 2010

    I think a good example of a game that is designed to raise awareness is Molleindustria’s Oiligarchy:


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