Is California’s “PC Gaming Ban” an Overblown Controversy?

A "California ban on PC gaming" has some fuming, but is this controversy really that impactful?

Alienware Desktop PC
Photo: Dell

Dell recently shocked gamers everywhere by updating the listings for many of their Alienware brand gaming PCs with this warning that notes those models can not currently be shipped to California and five other U.S. states:

“This product cannot be shipped to the states of California, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont, or Washington due to power consumption regulations adopted by those states. Any orders placed that are bound for those states will be canceled.”

In this statement released to The Register, Dell confirmed that these shipment restrictions were enacted in response to power consumption laws imposed by California and other states:

“Yes, this was driven by the California Energy Commission (CEC) Tier 2 implementation that defined a mandatory energy efficiency standard for PCs – including desktops, AIOs, and mobile gaming systems. This was put into effect on July 1, 2021. Select configurations of the Alienware Aurora R10 and R12 were the only impacted systems across Dell and Alienware.”

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What is this new law that Dell is referencing? Well, it’s not really a “new law” but rather a new series of computer and monitor power consumption restrictions first approved by California in 2016. If you really want to know all of the details of this act, then feel free to check out this extensive PDF breakdown of the specific restrictions it includes as well as a look at future restrictions that will be imposed by subsequent updates to this act. If you’re looking for a shorter (but informative) summary of the act, I highly recommend checking out that Register article above or this brief breakdown from PC Gamer. You’ll have to download it, but you can also check out this official PDF fact sheet about the first tier of this act.

Basically, though, this act is a response to (among other things) a 2015 report from the Semiconductor Industry Association that found that “computing will not be sustainable by 2040, when the energy required for computing will exceed the estimated world’s energy production.” California (and other states that have since adopted similar acts) is trying to reduce PC and monitor energy consumption in an attempt to help reduce excess power usage and the problems that can cause both now and in the future. That’s the gist of this situation, but again, please be sure to do as much research as possible regarding the specifics of this act before you simply take my (or anyone else’s) word as the definitive take on this matter.

What most people really want to know, though, is whether or not California and other states are implementing a ban on high-end PC gaming machines that may very well impact the advancement of PC gaming hardware and the many video game studios in California (and elsewhere) that often rely on such hardware.

It’s very easy to see how someone could jump to that conclusion, and it’s honestly not entirely a knee-jerk reaction. Obviously, it’s kind of a big deal that a company as big as Dell isn’t able to ship many of their Alienware gaming PCs (a brand synonymous with high-end PC gaming) to six U.S. states. While no other company, as of the time of this writing, has also had to stop shipping PCs to those states, there’s also no official word on when Dell will be able to start shipping these models again or what their next course of action is so far as complying to current and future restrictions goes.

The impact of this shipping stoppage is amplified by an ongoing shortage of high-end GPUs that have left many people unable to build their own gaming PC with the latest and greatest components. As even some dedicated PC builders start to turn to pre-built gaming PCs to get the specific parts that they’re looking for, this isn’t exactly a great time for one of the biggest pre-built gaming PC manufacturers in the world to stop shipping gaming PCs to certain states.

Having said all of that, a closer look at this situation seemingly shows that it’s not nearly as dire as a “PC gaming ban.”

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See, this act isn’t necessarily meant to suggest that PC gaming is somehow the biggest contributor to our power consumption problems. It’s more about how the evolution of PC gaming hardware requires us to consider whether previous energy requirements/restrictions are still doing enough to meet modern needs. This isn’t really about restricting PC gaming but rather helping to ensure that PC hardware remains efficient based on modern technological standards and new information about the global footprint of this technology.

It’s very much worth emphasizing the word “efficiency” in this instance as one of the cornerstones of the act are new metrics that determine how much energy PCs and monitors use while they’re idle or in “Sleep” mode. In fact, a popular theory at the moment suggests that the PCs Dell currently cannot ship to select U.S. states are the ones that do not meet those idle/sleep mode energy usage requirements. That would certainly help explain why Dell is still able to ship some Alienware models and not others. It’s also probably not a coincidence that the ones they are still able to ship are on the lower end of the price spectrum. Those models may demand less power overall than their beefier (and perhaps less efficient) counterparts.

Again, though, nobody outside of Dell seems to be entirely clear about what’s happening at the moment. While it seems like Dell may have failed to meet certain restrictions in time, there are so many little (and often confusing) factors involved in this act that even top analysts are still scrambling to make sense of what it means for PC hardware manufacturers, anyone else who makes devices that may be affected by this act’s regulations, and, of course, you, the consumer.

That’s really the bigger issue. Concerns about the language of this act, its enforcement, and whether or not it does enough to conserve energy in these states compared to other acts that could be enabled to target some of the largest energy users in those areas (including cryptocurrency miners and certain industries) are all concerns that are very much worth being talked about. This is a very important issue even if the details of this particular part of the conversation may have been overblown by the consumer-facing nature of Dell’s shipment restrictions.

So while the death of PC gaming may have been greatly exaggerated, please do feel free to take this opportunity to start asking questions about how energy consumption is impacting our environment and society as well as what everyone (which includes individuals as well as governments and corporations) can start doing to ensure that we’re able to enjoy little things like PC gaming for as long as possible.

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