Dear Umbra,

Does the increasing use of video games as a form of recreation bode well for the environment? Fewer people using real resources means less of an impact on the world.

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Rockville, Md.

Dear Tadeusz,

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Now that is an interesting spin on things. No one knows the complete answer, and we won’t know until we fully assess the footprint of our electronic age.

Make that 51 simple things you can do.

Photo: ansik

Playing video games is similar to home computing in obvious impacts: electricity, electronics manufacture and disposal, increased entertainment coupled with less person-to-person and person-to-outdoor interaction. I hazard that, at this point, any pundits who might be holding forth on the topic are more influenced by their own relationship to gaming than by any quantifiable information linking video gamers and environmental issues.

Gamers, like people on computers, are using real resources. As I mentioned, the components of video gaming — the monitors, the consoles and handheld devices, the discs and packaging — all have their trails of planetary destruction. Coltan, for one example: another toe on the footprint of our electronic age. Coltan (the nickname of columbite-tantalite) is a heavy ore used to control the flow of electric current in tiny circuit boards. Coltan is almost exclusively mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the demand for it, and the Congolese desperation for survival, is wreaking social and environmental havoc. Miners have pushed into national parks, destroying gorilla habitat and even apparently eating the gorillas. The coltan “market” is characterized by violence, gangs, and economic links to the area wars. Hey, why play fake wars at home when you have actual complicity and involvement in the Congolese war? But non-gamers can’t point fingers at gamers. Coltan is in virtually all our small “personal electronics,” including the very computer upon which I write these words.

What you meant, I think, is that gamers may have less of an impact on the outdoors in person, because they presumably stay inside all day and night, Leaving No Trace. And perhaps, by squirreling themselves away at home all day, they avoid driving and its negative impacts. It’s an interesting argument and one not normally seen in the general “Today’s Yoot is Going to Heck in a Video Console” folderol. We have seen studies exploring whether gaming leads to environmental disinterest. A Nature Conservancy-funded study correlated the rise in indoor entertainment, including video games, with declining use of national parks. Correlation is not causation, though, so we shouldn’t get too excited, especially since declining park visits were also correlated to the rising price of gas.

I’ve never seen any studies exploring whether staying at home is good for the planet because we leave the natural world alone. You could lead the way. Our imagined home-bound gamer might drive fewer miles, yes. But I don’t see why a gamer would eat less meat, or more organic foods; in fact, stereotypes dictate that our gamer eats Archer Daniels Midland corn-based snack foods. And a home-bound gamer would probably use more electricity and heat than the imaginary out-and-about socialite or hiker.

As I said, however, we don’t know whether video games are actively helping or harming the general environmental cause. We can only speculate. And since games are a bit addictive, appear antisocial, are mysterious to the general taste-makers and largely played by teenage boys, there is quite a lot of negative speculation. Whether or not the cultural concerns play out, we do need to be cautious about over-consuming personal electronics in general. In a previous column I wrote on video games, a reader bemoaned my focus on the small stuff. I don’t fault him; I do focus on small consumer choices, perhaps too often. But personal electronics are small only in a physical sense. From all we know so far, this little toe of the electronic footprint is linked to environmentally dangerous resource extraction and disposal all across the globe. As with all things, moderation should be our watchword. Or, as we like to say, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.