Sean leaves behind a loving wife, Heather, two young children, Samantha and Nathan, and scores of grieving family, friends and colleagues. And that’s just in this world. Because online, in the virtual worlds that Sean helped create, he is also being mourned by countless competitors, collaborators and gamers who shared his passion. — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, September 14, 2012
Sean Smith lived in two worlds, but he died in one. His death came in the world where he worked. It was September 11, 2012, and Smith was inside the United States Special Mission Compound in Benghazi, Libya. A scruffy, bald 34-year-old with a warm smile and dark wit, Smith had spent the past decade as a globe-trotting operative for the U.S. Department of State, with stints in Montreal, Pretoria, Baghdad and, most recently, the Hague, where his wife and children awaited his return.
As a foreign service information management officer, Smith was the consulate’s one-man geek squad, ensuring the electronics ran smoothly and securely. When he wasn’t fixing modems, he would help manage staff and deal with locals. But like most wartime operatives, he was prohibited from revealing any more details of his job to friends and family. When his mother, Pat, asked him what he did, he’d joke, “Mom, if I told you, I’d have to shoot you.”
The State Department had been in Benghazi since April 2011 as part of its diplomatic mission in a country in the throes of civil war. Tensions and violence grew in the wake of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s death in October of that year, and the U.S. took to upgrading security at the compound where the American diplomats lived. The outer wall had been extended to 12 feet high and lined with barbed wire and razor wire. A steel gate and drop-bar traffic barriers reinforced entrances to the complex, and large concrete blocks were placed farther outside to keep cars from ramming their way in. Five armed security agents patrolled outside. Some windows were covered with grilles and doubled as escape hatches.
For Smith, who had arrived at the compound about a week before it was attacked, being in such a hostile environment was a necessary but unsettling part of his career. “He wasn’t happy in those stressful situations,” his friend Kristoffer Touborg recalls. “He wanted to go back to his wife and kids. He was uncomfortable. But he’d try to make light of it.” When friends worried about his safety, he’d joke, “I’ll try not to die this time.”
On this afternoon in Libya, Smith noticed suspicious activity outside the compound. Attacks by extremist Islamic militiamen had been growing in Benghazi in recent months—rocket grenades fired at the Red Cross building in May, an IED explosion outside the U.S. compound in June. Now this was the onset of what would become the most controversial attack yet, a messy scandal for the Obama administration and a dark stain on Hillary Clinton’s career.
But for Smith, it wasn’t about diplomacy anymore; it was a struggle for survival. He took to his computer and fired up a chat window. He began urgently trying to describe the scene as it unfolded, “assuming we don’t die tonight.”
“We saw one of our ‘police’ that guard the compound taking pictures,” he wrote.
Soon after he wrote “Fuck.”
And then, nothing at all.
Smith’s last messages didn’t go to the White House. They went to the world where he lived a double life of diplomacy, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game called Eve Online. Run by CCP Games, an independent developer in Iceland, Eve pits players against one another in futuristic space wars. Though wildly complicated, it has become one of the most successful games on the internet, with more than 400,000 subscribers paying $15 a month to battle for hours a day. It has also become an underground cultural phenomenon. There are Eve podcasts, online radio stations, blogs and fan festivals from Las Vegas to Moscow.
Yes, it’s geeky, but it’s also surprisingly influential and unique: a virtual world of geopolitical intrigue that attracts real-life spies, hackers and emissaries from across the globe. And in this parallel universe, no one was more influential than Sean Smith, who went by the name Vile Rat. As one of his Eve allies blogged after his death, “If you play this stupid game, you may not realize it, but you play in a galaxy created in large part by Vile Rat’s talent as a diplomat.”
Diplomacy is a game, and to understand the mind of this diplomat—and what was going through it the moment the consulate was attacked—you have to understand the game of Eve. Launched in 2003, it was created by a group of buddies in Reykjavik who wanted to put more balls and brains in computer-game warfare by making it more like real life. “Eve is a mirror of real-world geopolitics,” says Alexander Gianturco, Smith’s best friend in the game. “Territory is scarce, resources are scarce, and there are massive wars of people fighting over them.”
The game takes place in New Eden, a galaxy of more than 7,500 star systems controlled by four warring factions. After logging on and creating your avatar—from its shoes to its eyebrows—you join one of the competing races.
But that’s where the similarities with other games end. Unlike in, say, Call of Duty, you don’t have a required set of missions to complete or enemies to slaughter. Once you create a ship to pilot, you’re off to explore the galaxy as you see fit. Flying a ship through Eve is like gliding through a dreamy sequence of Star Trek, with incandescent white supernovas and spiraling wormholes. But despite the beauty, Eve is a ruthless Wild West. As in reality, the battles center on making cash. To fuel this, Eve boasts one of the most complicated virtual economies on the internet, with its own currency. The game’s builder employs a full-time staffer with a Ph.D. in economics.
Almost every item inside Eve—from the spaceships to the towers—is created, distributed and sold by the players. To earn money, players work at in-game jobs—seemingly menial tasks such as smashing rocks or driving a delivery truck. For hours a day. As in reality, sex can be a currency. One of the game’s most notorious players, a busty blonde avatar named Tigerlily, is a self-described “sexpionage agent.” She plies her trade in Pleasure Hubs, sections of Eve devoted to gambling and sex. She waits for high-profile pilots to fly through and then flirts with them in chat—hoping to lure them into a private chat session where they can have full-blown cybersex. “When you’re presented with a sex slave and all she wants to do is suck your cock, it works out quite well,” she says.
In real life Tigerlily works in national security for the Canadian government.
For added gravitas, Eve has a unique element of mortality. In the game, death is real. “The idea,” says CCP spokesman Ned Coker, “was to have a massive universe where the core principles were that death has to mean something and Everyone lives in the same game world.” This is a radical departure from hit online games such as World of Warcraft, in which players can die and respawn without much consequence. By limiting itself to a one-game world and making losses permanent, Eve raises the stakes for gamers.
As in real life, evil is part of the game. “We don’t regulate what players do,” says Touborg, the game’s lead designer. “We accept that people don’t want to play good guy all the time.”
For a player like Sean Smith—who would encounter his share of bad guys from Iraq to Libya—Eve was something remarkable: a political minefield with high stakes, just like the world he lived in day to day.
Smith grew up in a middle-class suburb of San Diego, an only child raised by a single mom. Despite his technical chops and ham radio hobby, he was no pencil-necked geek. He had a passion for Chargers football and motorcycles, eventually getting himself a Harley Sportster. After graduating from high school, he joined the Air Force, where he worked on ground radio maintenance and, during his six-year stint, became a staff sergeant.
It was during this time that he found his other home, online, at SomethingAwful.com, a comedy website that lampoons pop culture (featuring, for example, a series of titles for the porn versions of film classics, such as Rear Windhole). He hung out with other die-hard fans of the site in the Something Awful forums, where they called themselves Goons.
But the Goons didn’t just sharpen their spears for goofy websites. They were serious gamers. And as Smith soon learned, few games seemed riper for conquest than a new one called Eve Online. The Goons began to trickle into the game, and soon they numbered in the thousands. As their power grew, the game began to trickle into their lives away from their computers. When one early leader left the Goons, rumors flew that he had stolen currency from his teammates. In retaliation they hacked into his e-mail. They found nude pictures of him and faxed photos of his penis to his office.
Goons also began to organize off-line meet-ups. During one, Smith met with some of the guys in Washington, D.C. They drank, talked politics and ribbed one another as most men do. “He was soft-spoken but a guy you would listen to,” remembers Touborg.
There was a reason for Smith’s quiet resolve. One day he let slip that when he wasn’t fighting wars in Eve, he was working as a State operative in real life. To prove it, “I’d make him show me his diplomatic-immunity badge,” recalls Sean Conover, a fellow Goon and the security director at CCP. But that was as much as he’d get from Smith. “He was pretty hush-hush,” Conover says. “For him to tell me details while sitting in the Green Zone would be a pretty big deal. He had rockets lobbed at him every day. He plugged into a video game to not have to deal with that.”
“Fuck mortars,” Smith typed to his buddies in Eve. “Sirens again God dammit.”
Smith was in Iraq, in his fifth year working with the State Department. Hearing the bombs fall around him was becoming routine. It was also wearing on his family. One day while talking with his mother, he suddenly went silent, then came back some minutes later.
“What’s happening over there?” she asked.
“Listen,” he replied and held out his phone.
His mother could hear explosions in the distance. As hard as it was, she tried to accept the dangers he faced in the line of service. “I can’t spend my life worrying about it,” she later recalled. “I accepted what he wanted to do.”
Smith tried to make the most of his time in the war zone despite the 11-hour days. The situation in Iraq was beyond tense. The 2003 U.S.-led invasion had toppled Saddam Hussein’s government, leaving a power vacuum in the region. Tribal warfare raged. The State Department in Baghdad had the unenviable task of steering political negotiations toward a peaceful regime that would work according to Washington’s interests in the region. Meanwhile the death toll mounted by the day. Suicide bombers killed hundreds in the first half of 2008 alone, and it seemed only a matter of time before someone targeted the U.S. consulate.
“We lived in shitty trailers and ate some kickass food,” Smith later recalled. “This is the best job I can even dream up,” he said on another occasion. “You do things every day, then you see it on CNN later.” And another time: “Places are unimportant; people make the place in this line of work,” he wrote. “The best post could be a living hell if your Ambassador/DCM/MGMT are bad, but the worst hellhole on the planet could be the place you always remember as your favorite post if the community is awesome.”
A huge Obama supporter, Smith was known to go around slapping Obama stickers on Republicans’ desks. For fun, the guys would grab a jeep and joyride into Baghdad to hit up the shops and restaurants. “It’s a college party atmosphere,” as he put it. “If you’re spending that much time in your apartment, you’ll be that weird shut-in guy. Don’t be that guy (it’s not healthy!).”
To help survive the insanity of life in a war zone, he escaped into battles in Eve, where he could apply what he was learning in real-life diplomacy to fueling the Goons’ conquests. In Iraq he was observing firsthand how the U.S. was handling diplomatic efforts in the wake of Saddam Hussein’s removal: increasing security in Baghdad, engaging in talks with Syria and Iran, joining forces with Iraqi tribe leaders to fight militants.
The Iraq war was directly mirroring the biggest battle ever in Eve, known as the Great War. As fellow Goon Gianturco describes it, the Great War was “a three-year grudge fuck between two blocs”—the Goons and a group called the Band of Brothers. As nerdy as an online war sounds, it’s addictive for the players. The Great War was all about conquest, about which alliance would become the most powerful in the game.
Vile Rat sought peace where others sought war. “A lot of people think spaceships drew him to Eve,” recalls his friend James Lohman, a 36-year-old computer-security specialist known in Eve as Digi. “But it was the politics, the espionage.” And as a leader of the Goons, Smith decided to apply his real-life skills to the problems. “He created his own diplomatic section that was modeled on what he’d learned in the State Department,” says Gianturco.
With more than 10,000 Goons to manage, Smith spent hours a day communicating with his fellow online diplomats, analyzing chat logs, examining intelligence. He created the Corps Diplomatique, based on his experience in the State Department. It was structured as a group consisting of chief and junior representatives. Getting into the Corps wasn’t easy. Smith made prospective diplomats go through a demanding application process. They had to write essays and analyze political history. They had required reading: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, The 48 Laws of Power, How to Win Friends and Influence People. They also had to pass tests on solving diplomatic challenges.
Eve’s reputation for attracting real-life hackers, diplomats and military personnel extends deep into the game’s subculture. While Smith was negotiating for greater democracy within the virtual world, he was also recruiting the brightest gamers for real-life jobs with the State Department.
“He was one of State’s best advocates for getting people onboard,” Lohman says. “If he liked you and knew you decently enough, he’d do everything he could to talk you through the application process. The thing about Sean is that he loved his job very, very much. He loved the people and believed in the mission—the diplomatic mission, bringing democracy to people who don’t have it but want it, keeping foreign relations intact.”
“Can I offer a dissenting opinion on this one?”
It was March 2012 and Smith was taking his turn at the microphone alongside eight other leaders on a stage in Iceland. He wore a black Fanfest T-shirt pulled over a white one and had a bottle of beer before him. Smith had no idea, of course, that he had less than six months to live.
The occasion was the annual Eve Online Fanfest, a gathering for hundreds of the most hard-core players from around the world, none more hard-core than Smith and the other guys on the dais. They were the elected representatives of the Council of Stellar Management, a group of players responsible for conveying the concerns of the Eve community to the developers at CCP in Iceland.
The group was discussing whether there should be the equivalent of political parties within their online world. “The party system is a good way to get ideas coalesced around a particular candidate,” Smith said, despite others’ reservations. He suggested using the American system of democratic primaries as a model. “All the different candidates go in there and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to have our ideas clash, and the best person is going to get the votes of the community.’”
Meanwhile, a storm was brewing in Libya around similar issues: party systems, candidates, control, power. People were fighting over some of the same values Smith was lobbying for in Eve. And as he discovered to his horror just five months after the Fanfest, they were willing to kill for what they believed in.
Through the summer of 2012 a series of violent episodes in Libya heightened anxiety among Americans there—kidnappings, assassination attempts, attacks perpetrated by Al Qaeda operatives. The American diplomats, led by Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, continued their work. Then on the evening of September 11 the situation exploded in a crescendo of terror outside Sean Smith’s room in the consulate.
It began at 9:42 p.m., when mobs of armed men launched their assault. Seventeen minutes later a U.S. surveillance drone was dispatched to fly overhead. Less than 90 minutes after the initial assault, President Obama was alerted to the situation by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
By that time Smith had already typed his last words online from his desk. As he heard the security alarm sound over the gunfire, a security agent tried desperately to lead him and Ambassador Stevens toward safety. But there was no safety to be found. The building burst into flames, and asphyxiating black smoke choked the air. By the time the three reached an escape window, the smoke was so thick they could barely breathe.
On the brink of passing out, the security agent leaped out a window, gulping in air. Then he tore back inside. Frantically, he peered through the conflagration for Smith and Stevens, only to feel his lungs dam up with hellish darkness. Desperate to stay alive, the agent bolted for the roof to alert backup. An armored car arrived, and a team of agents stormed the building, scanning for Smith and Stevens in the flames.
In the online world that Smith called home, Goons were reeling. Smith had abruptly logged off mid-chat. Was he alive or dead? This wasn’t the first time Smith had been caught in crossfire, and his fellow Goons figured he was okay. “Sean, as long as Goons have known him, has been in some tough spots where places were hot and getting attacked,” Lohman says. “He drops and says, ‘Gotta go, gotta go,’ and everyone laughs about it. There’s a dark humor element. This was one of those times.”
But as news of the attack hit the internet, Lohman began to feel increasingly nervous. With contacts from his job in government security and the spy world, he tapped his channels for information but kept coming up empty. “No one had anything, and the State operations center wasn’t talking,” he recalls. Finally another government-employed Goon tipped him off that Vile Rat was likely inside the consulate at the time. Casualties were being reported. “It’s probably Sean,” he told Lohman, “but I don’t know for sure.”
Over at CCP in Iceland, Conover reached out to Gianturco to see if he knew anything. The news wasn’t good. “Oh no, the attack on the Libyan consulate,” Gianturco said. “Oh no, he’s in there.”
“Relax,” Conover replied, trying to reassure himself against the unimaginable. “He’s fine, no way.”
In Eve, as in any other video game, there’s one large difference from life off-line. In a video game, you have control. You can sit down and escape into a pixelated universe of friends and fun. Yes, you can die, but you can always come back. Even in Eve, where mortality is part of the game, if you die you can always enter the game again as a clone of your former self. You can live forever, fix your mistakes, find community and solace. And if anything goes wrong, all you have to do is hit a few buttons on your keyboard and start all over. That’s what made this game such a haven for Smith and everyone else who found a home in Eve.
There was just one problem: It wasn’t real.
The next day, Gianturco took to the Eve Online community to tell them that, this time, real war, real flames, real smoke, the awful and uncontrollable reality of reality, had beaten their friend. “My people, I have grievous news,” he wrote. “Vile Rat has been confirmed to be KIA in Benghazi; his family has been informed and the news is likely to break out on the wire services soon. Needless to say, we are in shock, have no words and have nothing but sympathy for his family and children. I have known Vile Rat since 2006; he was one of the oldest of old-guard Goons and one of the best and most effective diplomats this game has ever seen. His family is in our thoughts and prayers.”
Smith, Stevens and two American security agents had been killed in the attack. The news sent shock waves through the community online and at CCP. “It’s just fucking odd,” Touborg recalls. “Of all the people in Africa, four Americans die and you knew one of them—it was like getting struck by lightning.”
“This is a man who was doing good work in Libya, trying to help people, and for this to happen was a terrible way to go,” Conover says. “And the flip side was that Sean touched a lot of people in the game. As a diplomat, he was the guy people would talk to, he was the guy making sure we had friends. After seven years the people you touch and the ripples you create are tremendous. That’s what makes it such a terrible thing.”
It wasn’t the first time a gamer in Eve died in real life, and there was some hesitancy to treat Smith’s death differently from others. But the pilots of Eve knew this was unique given the awful nature of the attack and Smith’s legendary status in the game. He was their greatest diplomat, online and off, and they would give him the send-off he deserved.
In addition to being memorialized in news pages and broadcasts across the world, Sean Smith became an unlikely lightning rod of outrage.
Conservative talk show host Glenn Beck accused Smith of being a CIA operative.
Smith’s mother briefly took to the airwaves, pleading for answers from the government. “I begged them to tell me what happened,” she said. “I look at TV and I see bloody handprints on walls, thinking, My God, is that my son’s? I don’t know if he was shot. I don’t know—I don’t know. They haven’t told me anything. They are still studying it. And the things that they are telling me are just outright lies.”
The deaths of Smith and the other Americans have continued to plague the Obama administration. Despite high-profile hearings, the entire truth about what happened in Benghazi may never be known.
In death as in life, Sean Smith was honored in the two worlds he inhabited. In the real world the tribute came on September 14 at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, D.C. A Marine procession carried the coffins of those killed in Libya onto the tarmac, draped in American flags. A somber crowd, including Smith’s family, gathered as President Obama and Hillary Clinton took the podium to address them.
“Sean Smith, it seems, lived to serve,” Obama said. “First in the Air Force, then with you at the State Department. He knew the perils of this calling from his time in Baghdad. There in Benghazi, far from home, he surely thought of Heather and Samantha and Nathan, and he laid down his life in service to us all. Today Sean is home.”
Clinton also cited the friends, family and colleagues Smith left behind but added “and that’s just in this world. Because online, in the virtual worlds that Sean helped create, he is also being mourned by countless competitors, collaborators and gamers who shared his passion.”
For Smith and the others, after all, Eve was more than just a way to merge his online and off-line worlds of war games. It was a community. As a real-life envoy he was often on the move, far from his family, his friends and the safety of suburban life. Whether he was in Pretoria or Baghdad, he could sit down, press a few buttons and tap into a world of players who knew him better than anyone at his temporary posts. “At the end of three years he’s off to somewhere else,” says Lohman. “He didn’t have time to get to know anybody. The internet is always on, so he put his time there.”
Gamers took to Twitter to honor his memory. “Sean Smith had it right,” tweeted one. “Use diplomacy in real life and only fight wars with other gamers online.” Some posted YouTube videos. “To the rest of the world, his name was Sean Smith,” reads the text overlay of one as it fades into dreamy space clouds. “To us, his name was Vile Rat.” But the most elaborate honor came inside the game itself. Dozens of players steered their ships into outer space, positioning themselves over a patch of deep black darkness and flickering white stars. There, they ignited spherical defense fields that emitted a purplish glow. From a distance, the lights of the individual purple spheres blurred together to spell a phrase, one that burned indelibly in their hearts and minds:
“RIP Vile Rat.”