A piece on gamepolitics brought my attention to an aspect of videogaming I never really thought about: The mining of the raw materials needed to manufacture consoles. A report on Toward Freedom states that the PlayStation 2's requirement for a rare metal in its manufacturing process helped fuel a bloody, decade-long conflict in Africa's Democratic Republic of Congo. This rare metal is a black metallic ore called coltan which once it is refined becomes a bluish-gray powder called tantalum, a crucial component for cell phones, laptops – and the PlayStation 2 whose launch in 2000 spurred a further increase in demand.
This eventually led to Rwandan troops and Western companies to exploit the people and mineral resources of Congo, with children often forced to work in mines.
Extensive evidence shows that during the war hundreds of millions of dollars worth of coltan was stolen from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The UN and several NGOs claim some of the most active thieves were the Rwandan military, several militias supported by the Rwandan government, and also a number of western-based mining companies, metal brokers, and metal processors that had allegedly partnered with these Rwandan factions.
While comments like "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" make for catchy, cliche ridden headlines it has to remembered that during the last eight years not only the demand for consoles but also for other forms of consumer electronics grew disproportionately high. Take for example the saturation with cell phones or the rising popularity of laptops – not that that makes this sad fact any better but one certainly can't reduce the problem to the gaming industry alone (something which a lot of people are probably inclined to do as it's an easy target).
According to gamepolitics, a Sony rep told Toward Freedom that the company now takes steps to ensure that it does not use coltan illegally obtained from Congo in its manufacturing processes.