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.