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September 12, 2012

US Diplomat's Death Shakes Online Gaming World

by Kate Woodsome

A senior U.S. State Department official killed late Tuesday at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya was not only a diplomat in real life but in the virtual world as well.

Sean Smith, an information management officer, was better known as “Vile Rat” on EVE, a popular online science fiction video game in which nearly 400,000 players explore, fight and build communities in space.

As news of his death broke, popular gaming sites and forums exploded with outpourings of grief at the loss of a prominent member of the EVE community. 

Mark Heard, another EVE player who goes by “Seleene,” noticed something was wrong when he saw “Vile Rat” type an expletive and then “gunfire” on the instant messaging service Jabber.

In an online tribute, Heard says his first thought was, “Oh, hell, he’s in another one of those places” with spotty Internet and lax security, like Smith’s previous post in Baghdad. But this time was different.

Heard and other EVE players say they have lost one of their most important members.

“Sean was one of the most well known and respected diplomats for one of the most powerful alliances in EVE. He helped shape the universe we all play in,” said Heard, adding that diplomacy in the game is as complex as anything you would see in the real world.

“Powerful alliance representatives communicate using out of game chat clients, serious [real] money is spent on securing forums to protect from informational 'espionage' and the leaders of alliances can, over years, achieve a cult of personality status that is analogous with what you see in real world politics,” he said.

Smith, a member of the “GoonSwarm” alliance, was one of those personalities.

“Sometimes the fortunes of tens of thousands of people can turn on the words of just a few, or even one, player. Sean was such a player, and over the years, he directly or indirectly touched the virtual lives of countless people,” said Heard, who says he considered Smith a friend after meeting him in person for the first time at an EVE summit in Iceland last year.

A Florida-based EVE player who goes by the handle “Bagehi” and says he saw Smith in Iceland a few months ago, describes the gamer as a “good guy.”

“His work in real life seemed to influence his play style. I wouldn't say he was against violence in the game, but it was clear that his real life experiences gave him a heightened sense of compassion,” Bagehi said in an exchange on Reddit, an online forum.

Smith leaves a legacy of morality in a gaming world also occupied by “less savory” individuals who engage with rivals in real life to advance in the virtual world, says Bagehi.

EVE “attracts both elements and everything in between because it is both an extremely cerebral game as well as a game requiring extremely good social skills to succeed,” he said. “It is like combining chess with poker, then having 350,000 people all playing the same game against/with each other.”

News of Smith’s death has spurred tributes on blogs and forums across the Internet, and Heard says he expects the online community will find ways to pay their respects and offer help to Smith’s family.

As a start, Heard says, more than 200 player-built space stations in the game changed their names to Sean or Vile Rat on Wednesday in remembrance. 

“EVE's community is well known for being a dark and cutthroat place but, as a whole, I believe everyone realizes that real life takes priority over anything in the virtual world,” Heard said. “It's impossible to not relate to this tragedy. Even to those that did not know him personally, he was ‘one of us’.”

Smith leaves behind a wife and two children.