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Shocking Revelations
July 02, 2003

To whoever first uttered the phrase, “ask and you shall receive,” give yourself a couple of points (unless it was in a holy book, in which case whichever deity revealed it already has quite a few points.) I got some fabulous editorial submissions recently, two of which will go up today, two of which I’ve decided to save for next time. The first piece is from frequent contributor Midnight Merchant and is an excellent expose on the link between your favorite electronics hardware and the brutal, bloody civil war in the Republic of Congo. The second is a response to my rebuttal on Brandon Cruz’s art ed. from Mr. Cruz himself. This section is really starting to pick up, so don’t let it die out again. Send more editorials.



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This Week's Question: Where do you see the MMO genre going from here?
 
 
Guilty Gamer X

Have you looked at your PlayStation lately? Well what about your Xbox or GameCube? Powerful machines that render rich worlds, they give us countless hours of entertainment and pure joy. Yet they say one man’s treasure is another man’s trash. You’ll really understand how true this is, though, as I unfold the true stories behind our beloved machines.

The story begins far from any Wal Mart or E3; it begins in the bountiful country known as the Republic of the Congo*. Here, tribal chiefs are banking off people like us, “the gamers”. You see, one of the materials used to create such products like PlayStations, Xboxes, and GameCubes is called “tantalum”. Tantalum powder is a great substance for constructing capacitors, electronic devices that happen to run our beloved consoles. Capacitors made from tantalum have low failure rates, and unlike other oxide/carbide based products they can handle wide temperature ranges from -55 to +125°C. They are highly resistant to heat and superb conductors of electricity. What makes them even better is they can withstand severe vibration. It makes them reliable, efficient, strong, and cheap.

So what’s wrong with that you say? Well, the fact is that tantalum doesn’t magically appear from the sky. It is processed in massive factories from a mineral called “columbite-tantalite,” or “coltan”. The only way to get coltan is by mining it, but that’s not easy in Congo, one of the few countries left with rich amounts of the mineral. A majority of the land is damp, highly dense jungles, and to top it off the country has experienced decades of civil war, which leads to guerilla groups, rebel factions, and corrupted governments. So, how do you get Coltan if it’s in the middle of a jungle located in the midst of several war zones?

Well, you’re lucky because you don’t have to. No mining company or corporation in their right mind would touch these remote areas with a ten-foot pole. So what’s the solution? Well the great tribal leaders of Congo came up with a quick plan. They send untrained and unskilled children into the mines with picks and shovels. These children dig deep, muddy, and unstable holes, some as deep as 300 meters. Some journalists who had the meat to visit the mines would testify to seeing thousands of small children being lowered into these death traps for as little as $2 a month, which they don’t even get to see because it’s transformed into basic food and water. So, in other words they work for food and water. I’ll avoid the thousands of stories in which the slave-like children drown from floods, get crushed, or are buried alive while working these mines. Fact is, this stuff is needed over here and needed quickly. Sony shipped 500,000 initial PS2’s for the initial release, that’s a lot of coltan my friends.

So to bring the PS2’s here the great tribal leaders of Congo came up with another great idea. Smuggle the Ore through gem dealers who supply it to the manufacturers allowing them to purify it into tantalum to PlayStations: PlayStations which you just bought for $299 bucks at Wal Mart. But it’s always good to know some kid across the globe working 14 hour days, 7 days a week gets to see about 0.002 cents of the console … maybe.

So the next time you touch your console and feel the smoothly crisp surface and sleek design respect it even more.

*Formerly Zaire – Ed. - Midnight Merchant

Damian:

Wow, some really great investigative reporting by MM. A few things to note for the readers out there. The Republic of Congo has been undergoing a civil war since the 60s, when it gained independence from European colonial rule. Coltan was discovered to have excellent charge-holding properties about 10 years ago. At one point, prices spiked at $400/kg, which is a fortune to Congolese natives. There is a lot of legitimate mining of the substance by Congolese workers, and they make 10-50 dollars a week (the average Congolese worker gets 10 a week max). However, many African countries use child labor, so it would not surprise me if rebel factions were using children for this grisly task.

Fortunately, the major electronics company that uses coltan, Kemet, has put a ban on purchasing from anywhere except Australia where there are better controls and standards of living, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find that a lot of coltan was being sold illegally and used to keep the cost of electronics down. Shines an entirely new light on the electronics manufacturing business, supposedly a clean, humane industry.

If you’d like to learn more about the coltan issue or Congo, check out ABCNEWS.com or this article hosted at American University. I got most of my info from here.

 
More on the Art Front

I've read your rebuttal to my editorial. I have to say that I wholeheartedly agree with most of your points. I'd already begun to question my own opinions even before my editorial was posted. Some of my views were a tad extreme; a friend helped me reach that conclusion by reminding me that there is art in everything, even video games. I realized that it's not quite right to deny video games the distinction of being an art form given the work that game designers put into their products and that art is undeniably (and perhaps annoyingly) subjective.

You've written a fine counter to my argument, which is why I wouldn't want my opinion to be misunderstood due to the way I worded it. Although I stated that the player's enjoyment should always come first, this in no way means that I am against innovation. I am just as annoyed as you are about corporate "sequel-mania" as well as the slew of plastic "me-too" genre knockoffs that are churned out by developers after the success of another best-selling title. Hell, I'm even willing to give a turkey like Unlimited SaGa credit for at least trying to do something different.

Rather, I was trying to convey through my argument the dangers of artist mentality. For example, I'm sure that anyone who went to see a Miles Davis concert in the seventies was a little bothered by his habit of not speaking to or even looking at the audience when he was onstage. I have also seen this trend in modern art after eagerly pouring through art magazines and rushing to local galleries only to see a blue canvas without a title or explanation. The same goes for the uninspired meanderings that are packaged as high art by the Knitting Factory each year. This kind of thing occurs much too often in the art world for my comfort. It's as if some of these artists believe that their audience is not smart or worthy enough to comprehend their (sometimes perceived) genius. In my opinion, there's no point in artists performing music or exhibiting their work in a gallery if they don't acknowledge the audience, or at least give them a little respect. After all, they're spending precious money and time just to see what these artists have to offer. Sure, I'm always willing to give the avant-garde a chance, but the condescending nature that often goes along with it simply has to stop because there's just no reason for it. Although these examples are probably just a few bad apples in a much more bountiful tree, it annoys me regardless and must annoy others to. After all, someone had to coin the term "artsy-fartsy", right?

This is where video games are different, though. As you stated in your rebuttal, game designers like Kojima and Miyamoto are visionary geniuses, and I couldn't agree more. But what sets their work apart from most contemporary art that I've seen is its honesty. Whenever I buy a product from these and other designers, I know that I'm getting something that was created for my enjoyment and that no matter how artistic or visionary it is it's still not complete without me, the player and appreciator. Of course, this is not what goes through my head every time I buy a game, but I think that it's subconsciously what makes video games so appealing. I just don't want this unique characteristic to be spoiled by the subtext that goes with the label of art. My greatest fear is that a new generation of game designers who are empowered by this label and who possess the aforementioned "artist mentality" could take video games in the direction of the modern art world, which these days is a fringe in and of itself. This more than anything was what I intended to be the focus of my argument.

Furthermore, those who have been labeling video games as art don't seem to give the title the weight that it deserves. Sure, there are people like you who truly appreciate video games as an art form, but more often than not I have seen the term thrown around to win lawsuits or to needlessly justify a hobby. This worries me a little, but who knows? Maybe, as you said, there is no need to fear the ubiquitous label of art being attached to video games, for it can raise the quality of the output of the industry. That certainly may be the case. Regardless, with the way the video game industry is going financially, creatively, and publicly, we'll both know sooner or later.

- Brandon Cruz

Damian:

Note to fanboys/girls: yes, you CAN have a difference of opinion and still consider it a “discussion” rather than an argument. I have to acknowledge Mr. Cruz’s point about the “honesty” within the work of the “master” developers. There’s a lot of fake out there already, and it would be a shame to see more of it slither in under the guise of being legitimate art. And yes, it’s very sad that litigants have to resort to making games “art” to get it protection under the blessed First Amendment, rather than presenting video games as Constitutionally protected under the right to free expression. Newspapers and magazines don’t have to rationalize their content as art in order to have it protected by the First Amendment, neither should video games. Conversely, if games were found to cause violent tendencies in the highly impressionable (such as children or the emotionally disturbed) then their sale should be restricted. Yelling fire in a crowded theater when there is no fire is not art. But then, that’s the subject for another editorial.



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