Conflict Minerals: How Ethical are Video Games?

If you’re looking for my usual light headed, more humorous writing style this week then sadly, this isn’t your week. The topic I’m bring forward today is a very serious one. The fighting in The Democratic Republic of Congo is very real and still goes on to this day, some 25 years on, in some of the deadliest fighting since World War 2. With some estimating more than 4.5 million people being killed in the conflict so far.

The idea for this post came from an episode of Extra Credit I was watching whilst playing Command & Conquer for it’s review. I had never really given much thought as to where my consoles have come from other than “From a factory somewhere”. Obviously the minerals required for the components that make them have to come from somewhere, so stay with me as we pull back the curtain on the shadier side of the gaming industry.

Conflict minerals are raw materials that have been gathered from within conflict zones to which the profits of the sale of these materials are used to perpetuate the fighting. They are similar to blood diamonds which is a much more well known phenomenon. The 4 most common conflict materials are Gold ore, Cassiterite (an ore of Tin), Wolframite (an ore of Tungsten) & Coltan (an ore of Tantalum); However, conflict minerals are not exclusive to these minerals. The problem of conflict minerals and the mining of them is huge in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there is estimated to be untapped mineral deposits valued in excess of $24 trillion ($24,000,000,000,000). The mines themselves are usually family or village run operations but rebel groups, private militia, terrorist cells and armed forces profit from the theft, illegal taxing and smuggling of these minerals. These bands will either take complete control of a mining operation or demand a cut. If the miners refuse these forces have been know to decimate entire villages, kidnaped children as slaves or child soldiers and use rape as a weapon of war.

This is a huge problem for both the games industry and the electronics industry as a whole since a lot of the minerals stated are used in the manufacture of electrical components, which in turn is used in all our electronic devices. Gold is used in the coating of wiring, Tin is the main component in solder, Tungsten is used to create vibrations and Tantalum is used to allow a device to hold a charge. Fortunately enough this is a situation that is starting to be addressed. Both the US and EU have put into law the investigation of supply chains and forcing companies to disclose whether or not conflict minerals are being used in their products. These laws are been embraced and real effort is being made by the industry to audit their supply chains in order to weed out conflict materials. Intel was one of the first to embrace the move away from conflict minerals and has been free from conflict materials for the past 6 years. Both Sony and Microsoft have also made positive steps in eliminating conflict materials in their supply chain, both going so far as to specifically name every one of their smelters or refineries (SORs) in their public audit reports in efforts to show that their resources are conflict free. Apple too confirmed that in 2015 all 242 of the SORs they purchased from were conflict free and have done so every year since, in fact the following year they stopped business with 10 of these SORs because they didn’t participate in the audit.

Now the elephant in the room, you may or may not noticed that I have yet to name drop Nintendo into this discussion. Back in 2012 when the first conflict minerals company rankings were compiled from a report put together by the Enough Project as part of the Raise Hope for Congo campaign. Nintendo finished dead last with a score of 0, stating that.

“Despite growing public awareness about this issue and significant industry movement, Nintendo has made no known effort to trace or audit its supply chain,”

Sasha Lezhnev and Alex Hellmuth August 2012

This isn’t to say that Nintendo actively used conflict materials, it just shows that they didn’t prove they didn’t use them. It’s more likely that they were burying their heads in the sand from the problem. This however does nothing to ease the minds of the public and Nintendo’s fan base. It makes the company look more guilty than it probably is which in turn causes doubt and worry in those who are loyal fans of the company, especially in todays ethical driven society.

In fairness thought this was 8 years ago and improvements have been made by Nintendo since then, be it minimal. In it’s most recent report (August 2019). Nintendo stated that out of the 323 SORs that sources Tungsten, Tin, Tantalum & Gold (3TGs) it got responses from every single one, however only 256 (79%) were identified as meeting an industrial standard in regards to auditing and ethical sourcing. It is true to say that Nintendo has been improving (they were up from 76% last year, 74% the year before that) but when you consider that Nintendo has had the same amount of time to address the problem as the rest of the world but is still dragging it’s heels, it’s not exactly a great improvement. It feels like the attitude Nintendo is taking is one of doing no more than they have to. A great example of this is that the majority of companies higher up the ranking (Apple & Microsoft to name but a few) actively contribute money and resources to efforts to eliminate conflict 3TGs from the supply chain and provide funds to audit SORs as to their ethical resource sourcing . Nintendo on the other hand does nothing of the sort, it seems their contribution to the eliminating the problem is to show how they are not giving to the conflict and if you ask me that’s morally ambiguous at best. This behaviour however, doesn’t prove that Nintendo have blood on their hands, but they are hiding them so well that they are unable to prove that they don’t.

I’ve mentioned what the industry has done to root out the problem but what can we do as consumers? One thing we can do is to look at more than the financial cost of a device or console. Look at it this way, if one company releases a laptop of specific specs and another less reputable company releases another laptop of the same specs at the fraction of the price, ask yourself where that extra money is going. Is it going toward a higher quality product or maybe is it going towards more ethical resourcing and manufacturing? Sometimes you may be paying less financially but there might be an ethical price to your cheaper tech. That’s not to say all cheap products fuel conflict, just that we should be more aware of the products we buy and the companies that make these products or the ones that sell them to us. If we change our spending habits, look into making more ethical choices in our purchases we can be a driving force for the industry and force change in those companies unwilling to improve ethically, because the best way at fighting unethical companies is to hit them where it hurts, their bottom line.

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