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.