In one of the many examples of the fantasy worlds of video games affecting the actual world, a report written by John Lasker for Toward Freedom claims that Sony’s success with the PlayStation 2 is soaked with the blood of those killed in the violent clashes in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The report, released last Tuesday, claims that electronic companies like Sony obtained their roles in the war through their desire for what the Congolese call coltan. Coltan, short for Columbite-tantalite, is a mined material through which the elements niobium and tantalum can be extracted, with the latter of the two being essential to a wide variety of electronics. Used for its ability to withstand extreme heat, tantalum is a much-sought commodity among electronics manufacturers.
For these reasons, and perhaps a bit unfairly, the conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been dubbed “The PlayStation War” by some. Of course, ‘PlayStation’ could easily be replaced by any number of consumer electronics — laptop computers, cellular phones, prosthetic devices, hearing aids, etc — as tantalum is used much more widely than in just PlayStation products. Moreover, companies like Sony rarely mine for resources themselves. Instead, they to obtain materials through mining companies like Eagle Wings Resources International and Cabot Corporation.
Mining companies have long been the subject of much controversy, even outside the realm of tantalum. Eagle Wings Resources International and Cabot Corporation were two of three U.S. mining companies accused in 2004 of using the din of war to plunder Congo for its resources. Eagle Wings in particular was accused of using child labor to run its operations.
Sony spokesman Satoshi Fukuoka admits that Sony does indeed still use tantalum in its products, but says that because Sony rarely manufactures its products’ components directly, the company cannot say for certain from where the original materials derive
Regardless, the Toward Freedom report claims that it is impossible for Sony to claim that they are entirely innocent. Taken from the report: “David Barouski, a researcher and journalist from Wisconsin, says it is certain that the coltan from this conflict is also in SONY video game consoles across the world. “SONY’s PlayStation 2 launch (spring of 2000) was a big part of the huge increase in demand for coltan that began in early 1999,” said Barouski, who has witnessed the chaos of eastern DRC firsthand.””
Some critics, on the other hand, seemed more keen on blaming consumers themselves. Oona King, a British politician implicated gamers in supporting the mining injustices. “Kids in Congo were being sent down mines to die so that kids in Europe and America could kill imaginary aliens in their living rooms,” she said.
King raises a good point. Should gamers feel guilty about buying products from companies that may or may have not had dealings with immoral mining companies? Are the consumers really the ones to blame?
The answers to these questions undoubtedly raise countless more. The fact, however, remains that Sony, for better or for worse, is hardly the sole player (or benefactor) in this situation. Instead, it is one of many actors in a web of economic pressures, lapes of ethics, and humanitarian disasters.
Let’s try keeping that in mind when we finally get a chance to play Resident Evil 5.