Conflict Minerals and Games

Trigger Warning: Rape and sexual slavery

“The DRC’s greatest curse is its wealth.” – Jean-Bertin, Congolese activist, 2012

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the most resource rich places in the world. It is home to massive reserves of gold, tungsten, tin, cobalt, copper and diamonds. Its forests are full of precious woods and rubber. It is home to 64% of the worldwide reserves of coltan, an ore from which tantalum, a metal used to make capacitors for electronic equipment, can be extracted from. Tantalum and cassiterite (a tin ore used in circuitry) in particular are currently in high demand and are extremely valuable. 18% of the world’s production of tantalum comes from the DRC.

Yet despite all this natural wealth, the DRC was ranked last place in the 2011 Human Development index. The resources are being extracted and sold, but no one in the DRC are seeing the benefit. What is happening here?

The history of exploitation in the DRC goes back to the Congo Free State of 1877 to 1908. It was then that Belgium ran a genocidal campaign of ivory and rubber production that led to the brutal deaths of around 10 million Congolese. The horrors of the Belgium occupation are legendary, the most infamous being the practice of cutting off limbs to enforce rubber quotas. This pattern of violent exploitation and corruption would unfortunately follow the region from then on, no matter who was in charge.

Today the region is wracked by ongoing civil war. Millions have died in the conflict, even more have been displaced from their homes. Children are kidnapped and forced to fight as soldiers. Sexual slavery and violence is rampant, with a recent study estimating that as many as 400,000 women are raped in the DRC every year. The warlords and armies fund their war with those valuable minerals, and many of the bloodiest battles are waged over the mines.

The miners are kept in semi-slavery conditions, offering barely enough to live on and no safety. Child labor is exceedingly common, and millions suffer from health problems as a result of mining. Many of the mining companies utilize debt-bondage slavery, loaning food and supplies to the miners at a price they can’t hope to afford from mining. Other mines are more overt slavery operations, with entire villages being forced to extract minerals at gunpoint. On an environmental level, mining is also catastrophic. It destroys local ecosystems, renders land unusable for farming or living, facilitates the spread of disease, and destroys local water supplies.

As previously mentioned, tantalum is used in almost every modern electronic device, from mobile phones to game consoles. There is a demonstrable link between the price of tantalum and violence in the DRC.1 In 2000, the release of the Playstation 2 and subsequent demand for the system sent the price of tantalum skyrocketing, causing the proportion of mines attacked to jump from 13% to 40%.2

This conflict and connection has largely been invisible to us in the West until recently. An early attempt at raising awareness between consumer habits and exploitation was the “Dona tu movil” campaign, started in 2004 by Congolese activists in Spain. The purpose of the campaign was to encourage people to recycle old phones and become more aware of the conditions in the DRC. As of 2012 the campaign has recycled 732,025 devices and raised a million euro. Sadly, the demand for tantalum outstrips what little recycling can offer. The current climate of phone consumption encourages people to upgrade and replace phones as often as possible. This is mirrored in the video game industry, where the lifespan of consoles is ever shrinking in favor of increasingly incremental upgrades. Even activist groups admit that recycling, even on a colossal scale, can not approach meeting the current demand.

A more recent campaign targeted specific companies and pressured them to address the issue of conflict minerals. In response, Apple and Intel both announced that they would no longer buy tantalum from the DRC in 2011, with Nokia and Samsung vowing to phase out DRC tantalum shortly after. These promises are good, but it is very easy for corporations to make such a promise without actually accomplishing anything. Tantalum is produced by smelting coltan ore, and as long as companies claim that they asked the smelters if the coltan was purchased legally they can claim it is not their responsibility. In fact, coltan smuggling is so rampant that it is difficult to prove that codes of conduct are followed. Neighboring countries facilitate the smuggling of resources out of the DRC in order to benefit from the demand, and corporations aren’t particularly willing to investigate too deeply where their cheap tantalum is coming from.

A prime example of the lackluster response to this issue can be found in Nintendo. In 2012, the Enough Project ranked the major electronic companies on their commitment to phasing out conflict minerals and to the creation of a clean mineral trade. Nintendo was ranked dead last3, with the report stating “Nintendo has made no known effort to trace or audit its supply chain.” In response, a number of viral campaigns directly targeting Nintendo launched and were picked up by the wider media, eventually forcing Nintendo to respond. In the fall of 2012, Nintendo announced it had made progress in removing conflict minerals from its Wii and 3DS products, and they addressed the conflict mineral policy directly on their website.4 However, activists were not terribly impressed, as Nintendo made a lot of promises to investigate and audit without actually promising anything concrete or showing any specific plan. Suppliers would be given a questionnaire, but otherwise Nintendo was not requiring its suppliers to use conflict-free smelters. The Enough Project responded, “Nintendo’s statement is a meaningless piece of paper without concrete steps behind it … Without that bare minimum, Nintendo is only putting a fig leaf over serious issues of war and slavery.”5

Nintendo is certainly not the only company talking more than acting. While there has been some demonstrable progress (Intel is currently developing a new conflict-free microchip and several companies have come together to form the Public-Private Alliance for Responsible Minerals Trade), there is still a lot of resistance from corporations against deeper auditing of supply chains. Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act directly addressed the issue of conflict minerals, requiring all national and international companies to report annually to the SEC with supply chain analysis on where their minerals come from. This measure has been under constant attack by corporations who consider it too bothersome and difficult to investigate. The companies argue that after decades of no one keeping track, investigating the supply chains is expensive and time consuming.

The first of these supply chain audits were released this past spring, with several electronic companies such as Google admitting that there was a “potential presence” of DRC conflict minerals in their suppliers.6 Other companies such as Disney and Sony reported that they were unable to determine if any of their suppliers used conflict minerals. Like Nintendo, many companies elected only to send their suppliers a questionnaire, and either accepted the responses at face value or shrugged their shoulders if their suppliers elected not to report back.

Section 1502 originally required companies to label whether their products were “conflict free” or not. However, this part was struck down by the US Court of Appeals in March, 2014. The court declared that requiring corporations to display this information violated their freedom of speech. Without this label, there is no real consequence for doing a half-assed audit. The information is technically available, but consumers who want to learn if their product contains conflict minerals have to instead wade through long legal documents or wait for another source to do it for them.

It should be noted that there are legal mines in the DRC and attempts by the local government to reform mining conditions. Companies could quite easily support these mines without any huge cost. Tantalum is also found in other parts of the world, in fact until recently Australia was the world’s largest tantalum producer. It shouldn’t be difficult to create a conflict-mineral free device, and despite corporate claims it would not be prohibitively complicated or expensive.

Honestly, this is subject that games journalism could be talking about more. Apple, Nintendo, Sony, Google and Microsoft all use minerals in the production of their gaming products that could be coming from the DRC. Video games are a huge economic force, and we’ve already seen how the demand for one system directly led to more violence. But other than short reports on the campaigns against Nintendo, there has been very little investigation into this issue by the game press. Why is that? I don’t think its entirely because people don’t care (although there is certainly a great degree of “who cares, just give me games” entitlement to be found). Rather, I believe the main problem lies in how removed we are from the products we buy.

When you go and buy a phone or a 3DS or a PS4, you don’t know who built it. There are no “game console artisans” or anything like that. You may know the name of a few game developers, but you won’t know the factory it was made, or the materials that went into its creation. Most of us have no idea how any of these products work on a technical level beyond the abstract. We don’t know the names of the factory workers who put the pieces together, or the names of the workers who smelted the ore into the metals, or the names of the miners who extracted the metals. It might as well be magic to us. A nebulous corporate brand simply made a magic box appear in our stores and we exchange paper or the electronic promise of paper for them. Then we go home and play and don’t think further. This applies to us designers as well, the games we make are made on devices built from slavery-derived minerals, even if all we do is produce digital content. Even the corporations are caught in this commodity fetishism, with no one working at the companies knowing where the materials and products they use come from either. If Sony and Nintendo don’t know where their magic boxes come from, what hope do we have?

But that doesn’t change the fact that we are complicit in the suffering of the DRC. I want to take a moment to comment on what I mean when I say “complicit” because I think many people tend to bristle at what they think this means. No one is claiming that you, average Joe and Jane consumer, are intentionally trying to hurt anyone, or that you alone can undo over a century of war and exploitation, or that you specifically are guilty of murder, rape or slavery. But regardless of our intentions and beliefs, we all have contributed and take part in a society that enables atrocities to happen in the name of convenience. Electronic companies and our demand for electronic goods are the driving force behind mineral production. All video games are made and played on these electronic devices, making it not merely an industry or consumer problem. As things currently stand, the entire medium has become complicit.

As of this post, it is not possible to buy a guaranteed conflict-free phone or game device. No matter how much you want to, you can’t play a video game without increasing the demand for conflict-minerals. This isn’t just a game problem, complicity cannot be avoided because of our very day-to-day life. How can you participate in our society without a phone? So then how do we work toward change if we have no meaningful choices other than buy a blood-phone or not be able to get a job or socialize? The crisis in the DRC is complicated and fueled by many sources. Cutting armed groups from the supply chain and helping promote safer alternatives helps, but won’t magically solve the problem. The idea that the electronics industry alone could end the human rights abuses in the DRC is naive (and pretty white-savior-y). Likewise a complete boycott of all Congolese minerals doesn’t help any of the miners there who need the little they get from trade to survive. But the idea that we should do nothing if we can’t do everything is a rather shallow deflection of responsibility.

Complicity does not innately mean fault, but it does mean responsibility. We have a responsibility to demand more information on what we buy. We have a responsibility to understand how our lives impact other lives. We have a responsibility to question how important our consumption really is. We have a responsibility to help build more open supply chains. We have a responsibility to insure the people we depend on for our goods are being treated fairly. We have a responsibility to demand that our companies live up to their commitment.

More Information:
Raise Hope for the Congo
Enough Project – Conflict Minerals

Update: Above I mentioned Intel’s work on creating a conflict-free microchip. Intel has announced that all their smelters are using conflict-free minerals and that they have stopped working with any that refused to change or allow an audit. This is currently being verified by 3rd parties, so it isn’t EXACTLY a guarantee yet, but it is still good news and proof that creating a conflict-free device is nowhere near out of the realm of possibility.

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4 Responses to Conflict Minerals and Games

  1. Tim says:

    “This is mirrored in the video game industry, where the lifespan of consoles is ever shrinking in favor of increasingly incremental upgrades.”

    Um, not really. Per whining by Ubisoft and others, the last generation of console hardware was actually the *longest* to date, so unless you’re talking about faulty hardware, I’m not sure this claim is justified.

    • joffeorama says:

      I should be clear that I’m including hardware revisions such as the Vita > Vita Slim or the 3DS > 3DSXL > 2DS. It’s nowhere NEAR the shrinking lifespan and culture of replacement in phones, but as we’ve seen with the PS2, it does drive up the price of minerals.

  2. racarate says:

    “How can you participate in our society without a phone?”

    it’s actually not that bad, i made a conscious choice to ditch cellphones nine years ago… in fact, i run into more cellphone-less people at gdc and indiecade than day-to-day life. it’s illegal to not hire somebody because they don’t have a cell phone. it’s rude to ostracize somebody because they don’t have a cellphone. ignore those two groups and you’ll be fine. when in doubt try to figure out how people got by in the 90s.

    • joffeorama says:

      Its not impossible to live without a smart phone… if you have other options. Obviously you have some other way of accessing the internet, so that alone makes it easier to go without a smart phone.

      I’m not talking about overt “you don’t have a phone, you can’t be my friend/employee” ostracization. I mean not having access to the internet means its hard to be reached and hard to look up and apply for jobs. Not having a phone or internet just makes things HARDER unless you’re already established, or have other kinds of connections. People got by in the 90s because, to be honest, there was a completely different culture of expectations. Smart phones and fancy pdas were a luxury good. They’re really not anymore, not by default anyways. Anyone can get a fancy phone that is essentially magic for free in exchange for a pretty cheap monthly contract.

      That isn’t to say that people who do have the luxury to go without a phone shouldn’t if they want to. More power to anyone who can get off the grid, I say. But we’re not yet at a point where anyone can drop off, or even at the point where enough people could to make a difference..

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