Jul 262008
The gaming internets were buzzing the last few days about a widely-publicized report from Toward Freedom that civil war and ongoing militia activity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have in part been fueled by the demand for coltan, a source of the tantalum powder that is necessary for capacitors in consumer electronics. Of course, this isn’t a new issue, just a new press release, in which the Playstation 2 in particular is singled out as a cause of conflict. This would be an excellent reason to dislike gaming consoles were it not inflammatory nonsense.

It would be foolish to deny the destructive effects of coltan demand, of course. Although the civil wars in the DRC had political origins, the conflict was sustained in part by demand for this mineral resource. Neighboring countries used militias in the DRC as proxies to ensure access to coltan, which they then sold to a number of foreign companies, which then resold it to various manufacturers, including many American makers of capacitors. Prices for tantalum spiked significantly in the years 1999-2000, providing an even stronger incentive for the DRC’s neighbors to seize its rich reserves of coltan. Conflict and deficiencies in infrastructure have at times limited industrial mining of coltan, meaning that it is often mined using less safe artisanal techniques, and often by children. While many responsible companies have taken steps to ensure that they do not use any coltan illegally seized from the DRC, monitoring any supply chain of this kind is very difficult and there are strong incentives for bad actors to lie. Moreover, the greatest damage was done by the ’99-’00 price spike; adopting supply controls now can’t undo what happened. The Toward Freedom article attributes the spike (and ongoing demand) to the Playstation 2. This is at best a highly selective interpretation of history.

Consider that as of 2007, the total number of cellular phone subscriptions worldwide was estimated at 3.3 billion, while the total number of PS2s sold to date is something like 150 million. According to statistics found at the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association website, the number of cellular phone subscriptions in the United States in 2000 was more than 100 million. By 2003 the number of cell phone subscriptions in the United States alone exceeded the number of Playstation 2 units sold worldwide in the entire production run to date. Keep in mind that those cell phone users are changing their phones regularly: the number of used and discarded phones in the United States (which has a low cellular penetration rate) substantially exceeds its human population. As such, we should expect that the actual number of cellular phones used by human beings since their introduction is significantly higher than the number of subscriptions, perhaps by a factor of two or more. Why blame game consoles for the coltan demand, then, rather than the far more prevalent cellular technology?

Of course, the demand for coltan doesn’t end with game consoles or cellular phones. Tantalum is used in virtually every modern piece of electronics equipment, including pagers, laptop computers, digital cameras, and inkjet printers, as well as artificial joints, film, and various tools. Why blame game consoles for the ongoing conflict when their sales and usage are completely dwarfed by these other applications? The turn of the century saw a massive expansion in the use of all manner of electronics, all over the world. All of these factors contributed to the tantalum price spike. Yes, the 2000 shortfall of PS2s played a role, but the 6-fold change in price that year could not have happened without an existing huge demand for phones and laptops, and serious structural problems in the tantalum market.

How, then, did this conflict come to be known as the “Playstation War”? Reporter John Lasker doesn’t provide any answers. He certainly doesn’t quote anyone on the subject and it’s not clear to me that the words “Playstation War” were used in reference to this conflict at any point before he did so in this article. In a fit of fairness late in the piece, Lasker acknowledges that the spike in tantalum prices that provided incentive for neighboring countries to interfere in DRC affairs was the result of multiple concurrent technology booms, but any good journalist knows that readers remember the lede. I don’t know why Lasker made the choice to put the console reference so high up in the story, but doing so was inflammatory, irresponsible, and counterproductive.

The world does not have vast and plentiful reserves of tantalum, and existing electronics that contain tantalum are, in general, not properly recycled. Continued strong demand for consumer electronics and the still-increasing penetration of cellular phones in the global market are combining to bring the price of tantalum back up. Thus, a rejuvenation of resource warfare in central Africa is becoming increasingly likely. The best defense against this scenario is for consumers to keep strong pressure on manufacturers and regulators to prevent “blood coltan” from making its way into consumer goods. The typical purchaser of a cell phone doesn’t know anything about tantalum or its uses, and in fact the typical American probably couldn’t tell you what continent the DRC is on. Awareness, then, is a precious commodity, especially for an advocate-journalist. However, awareness is diminished when you make game consoles into a scapegoat.

Even if you manage to heighten awareness of mineral wars in Africa with a piece like this, no good is done if the reader doesn’t make the proper connection with his own life. Can you imagine a person reading the lede paragraph on his laptop or cell phone and cursing those darn gamers for carelessly supporting resource wars? I can imagine nothing else. Calling the conflict a “Playstation War” allows the non-gaming reader to shift the blame onto those darn gamers and ignore his own contributions to resource scarcity and conflict.

Are gamers to blame for the sustained conflict in the DRC? Sure they are — to precisely the same degree as anyone who owns a cell phone, laptop, digital camera, artificial joint, anti-lock braking system, etc. All of us should try to be conscious of the origins (and destinations, you non-cell-phone-recycling jerks) of the materials in our electronics, and pressing the companies that make them to ensure that our sale price doesn’t subsidize war in Africa. Inordinately emphasizing the importance of game consoles in the financial origins of war in the DRC, however, lets non-gamers think they are off the hook, and amounts to little more than blaming the “other” for the sins of all. A putatively progressive organization like Toward Freedom should be capable of recognizing that, and ought to feel ashamed at having done so.

Jul 182008
For those of you who have missed it, Greg Tannahill has a fun series of posts about great gaming music up at his blog, The Dust Forms Words. While I don’t agree with all his selections (I prefer “Hikari” to “Sanctuary”, for instance), and I think he ommitted some really good ones (more on that below), it’s a great series of posts. Greg, who will soon be standing for election in Canberra, brings back happy memories of some really good games with great music, but he also dug up some very interesting renditions, such as the one below the fold.

Yes, those are musical tesla coils, and yes, that is the Mario Level 1-1 theme.

One of my favorites among the games he’s mentioned is the opening theme to Katamari Damacy. You should follow that link and watch the clip, but be forewarned that hearing this music even one time will burn it permanently into that part of your brain that keeps songs in your head all day. I also think this is one of the best introductory sequences to a video game. Watching the intro doesn’t prepare you in any way for the gameplay or the story, but the wacky visuals and catchy music put you in the right mood.

As I said, Greg missed a couple of great soundtracks. Rather than leave a snarky comment on his blog, I thought I’d include put some of the omissions in my own post.

The most obvious of these is Kō Ōtani’s soundtrack to Shadow of the Colossus. You can find the whole soundtrack about eight times over on YouTube, but the following video will give you a good start.

One of the best parts about the sound design in Shadow of the Colossus is that it doesn’t make every battle an exercise in overwhelming horns and heavy, pounding rhythms. Several combat sequences feature calmer music that builds tension with sinister or mournful undertones. Shadow of the Colossus would probably make the shortlist for best game of all time even if the soundtrack consisted entirely of kids beating sticks together, but featuring some of the best music in the history of gaming certainly doesn’t hurt. “Revived Power” is one of my favorite heroic themes ever.

Second on my list of omissions is Christophe Heral’s soundtrack for Beyond Good and Evil, which is simply amazing. One of the recognized high points is “Home Sweet Home“, which plays over the credits and out on the water before you complete the Black Isle Mission. And my god, this piano arrangement of the main theme by Mythili Mahendran is fantastic:

The game that really cemented my love affair with computer RPGs was Betrayal at Krondor, and this was certainly helped by Jan Paul Moorhead’s excellent midi soundtrack. This is harder to get these days, but I remember coming across some .ogg files from it not too long ago. Amazingly, YouTube actually had a clip of the credits (German version) to this great game, with the main theme playing over them. I actually prefer the funkier “Jimmy the Hand”, which plays during this walkthrough, starting at about 0:18.

The PS2 had an amazingly vast library of RPGs to choose from, but perhaps the best, and certainly the most unique, was Shadow Hearts: Covenant. Playing fast and loose with history, it featured cameos from Roger Bacon, Anastasia, and Rasputin, blending its bizarre humor in with three convoluted and emotional love stories. And then there was the character who fights with a doll that can only gain new attacks if you give a particular tailor gay porn. The soundtrack was fairly diverse, ranging from creepy electronic themes like this one from the battle with Astaroth, to very placid piano and string pieces. Almost all of it was excellent, but I am inordinately fond of “Getsurenka”, which played over the closing credits. Yes, it’s almost hilariously overwrought, but after the “good” ending of Covenant a cathartic love song is precisely what you need:

There are certainly more that could go in here, but that’s enough embedding for one post. If you’re interested in more technical discussions of video game music, you should check out Cruise Elroy. Click his category link on the side to find the music posts.

Jul 032008

“I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to become president.”—Gen. Wesley Clark (ret.)

I’m finding it difficult to see why this statement is considered to be at all controversial, despite the firestorm it has ignited in the conservative set. It is not an attack on John McCain’s service nor is it a smear against him. I could almost find the outraged Republican blowback on this quote to be funny, if I didn’t have a memory. Instead, I find it positively revolting.

It amazes me that anyone has to defend this quote at all, as our history has amply demonstrated that military service has no bearing on Presidential quality. Yes, the Army gave us Washington and Eisenhower. It also gave us such perennial entries on the shortlist for worst President in U.S. history as Franklin Pierce and Ulysses S. Grant. Even successful leadership at the rank of General does not indicate that one will perform admirably as a President. For Clark, a military man (and former Presidential candidate) himself, to point this out hardly qualifies as a smear. It’s fair to say this comment is unnecessary, but absent any additional context, the histrionics of the McCain campaign are just unwarranted foolishness.

However, we are not without additional context, because in an amazing coincidence, one of the men delivering those histrionics was Bud Day. Yes, the very same Bud Day who was a member of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and appeared in one of their commercials. This man, who through ignorance or foolishness attacked Clark’s perfectly sensible statement, had the gall to follow it up with a defense of the Swift Boat smears as “the truth”.

That’s why I can’t just dismiss the McCain response as a good laugh. The outrage, feigned or not, of conservatives is positively revolting in light of the Swift Boat campaign. To see those who winked at the SBVT’s outright slander of an American serviceman treat Clark’s statement as some kind of blood libel is a repellent display of hypocrisy. For McCain, who claimed to repudiate the SBVT tactics, to employ SBVT members and take their money in this campaign only heightens my disgust. The maverick, the straight-talker, the man for whom I felt a good deal of respect all seem to have perished in the pursuit of the Presidency.

McCain’s experiences in the Vietnam War, heroic as they were, have no bearing on his qualifications for the Presidency. His reaction to Clark’s statement of this obvious fact, however, has me more firmly convinced than ever that he lacks the judgment, the restraint, and the integrity to lead this nation.