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Finance & Innovation

The troubling link between video games and conflict minerals

Flickr: Sasha Lezhnev, Enoughproject.org

Earlier this week my colleague Christina did an eye-opening piece about blood diamonds, and how something as seemingly pure as an engagement ring can fuel conflict and injustice halfway around the world.

As a guy who might one day buy someone special an engagement ring, that piece hit me where I live. And it got me thinking: What other stuff in my life is secretly ensnared in a global web of exploitation?

The honest answer is probably… everything. From the clothes we wear to the smartphones we carry, just about everything capitalism churns out is predicated on injustice at some point down the supply chain.

(John Oliver recently took the fashion industry to task for its role in perpetuating this harsh reality.)

But as I poked around the Web looking for more on blood diamonds and their ilk—collectively known as conflict minerals—I discovered a connection between these problematic resources and the last thing I would have expected: Video games.

You read that right: video game manufacturers like Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft rely on materials sometimes obtained through illegal and/or unethical means to make some of the gaming world’s all-time favorite hardware.

Say it ain’t so, Mario!

Mama-Mia-mario-and-luigi.jpgfanpop.com

Brendan Sinclair has been doing some thorough reporting on the issue for gamesindustry.biz this month. In a nutshell, here’s the problem: Makers of video game systems—the actual hardware used to play games—can’t make their products without materials commonly mined in developing countries, particularly a group of four known as 3TG (tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold).

Think of 3TG as the blood diamonds of the gaming world.

In countries affected by war or political unrest, armed groups often vie for control of sources of those materials so that they can fund their campaigns, then exploit local labor to mine them as cheaply as possible. By continuing to buy materials sourced from those countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, video game manufacturers are effectively sponsoring armed groups and the conflicts they incite.

By now you’re probably asking yourself: shouldn’t there be laws barring companies from doing business with warlords?

And what’s to stop companies like Nintendo from just switching suppliers when conflict breaks out?

It turns out that, yes, there are laws intended to curb the use of conflict minerals. In the US, the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform law includes language requiring firms to disclose their use of conflict minerals. Companies like Apple and Microsoft have since publicly released annual conflict mineral reports, and pledged to cut down on their use of the problematic materials.

The problem is, it’s no easy task for big companies with global supply chains to identify where everything is coming from. As Sinclair writes, Microsoft reported receiving components for its hardware from 357 different suppliers in 2014—but could only get a straight answer out of 291 of them as to whether or not conflict minerals are involved.

Microsoft has threatened to cut ties with its uncooperative suppliers—but hasn’t axed a single contract to date.

And even if a well-intentioned corporation does manage to rid its supply chain of conflict minerals, does that mean all will be well in the countries those minerals come from? Not necessarily.

Blogging for the London School of Economics, Christopher J. Ayres writes that reforms could hurt the people they are intended to help. Like it or not, conflict minerals do provide a source of income for people who might otherwise be unable to provide for their families.

Just as the companies who rely on conflict minerals seem caught between a rock and a hard place, so too are the poor individuals who mine them.

We do know this much: conflict minerals fund wars, reward corruption, and exploit the poor. Addressing those issues starts with building awareness.

So what's a consumer to do? Promising to never buy another manufactured good ever again is probably out of the question, but what you can do is take advantage of some great online resources to help make more informed purchases. A good place to start is this helpful infographic by a group called Raise Hope for Congo, which ranks big electronics companies according to how well they're addressing the conflict minerals issue. 

So spend your hard-earned cash wisely, hold your favorite game-maker accountable, and game on!