WASHINGTON — State Department official Sean Smith was chatting on the computer with a fellow online gamer Tuesday when attackers began gathering outside the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Smith, an avid gamer and married father of two, typed out a harrowing message to the friend: “assuming we don’t die tonight. We saw one of our ‘police’ that guard the compound taking pictures.”
Hours later, Smith, a State Department computer expert, was dead, killed apparently by smoke inhalation as flames swept through the consulate building. Also killed in the attack were U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and two other Americans whose names have yet to be released.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed Smith, who’d served the State Department for 10 years at U.S. outposts in Baghdad, Pretoria, Montreal and The Hague, as “one of our best.”
But that was nothing compared to the memorials that were offered by many of the 400,000 paying subscribers of the popular EVE Online space fantasy, where Smith was known as “Vile Rat,” a smart but tough diplomat and spy who worked on behalf of a major alliance called Goonswarm.
Within minutes of the announcement that Smith was among the dead in Benghazi, tributes from players flooded social media, gaming boards and instant messaging. Many gamers renamed their space stations in his honor: “RIP Vile Rat” or “9-11 Never Forget-Sean Smith.”
“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,” wrote The Mittani, a friend of six years who was on the receiving end on Smith’s last message. “No one focused as relentlessly on using diplomacy as a strategic tool as VR.”
As Vile Rat, Smith had infiltrated opposing groups and orchestrated plots that brought down a rival alliance, earning him his share of online enemies. Those grudges fell away Wednesday in the face of stunned grief.
“Even people who were fighting him in the game are doing the same thing, and everybody is sort of banding together,” said Josh Goldshlag, a 35-year-old gamer and computer programmer from Arlington, Mass.
Smith had been elected by other players to serve on the Council of Stellar Management, a group of players authorized to consult with the game’s developers, he said.
Goldshlag, who goes by the handle “Two Step,” got to know Smith online through the council about 18 months ago. He finally met him in person during a recent trip to Iceland in March for an annual Fanfest gathering.
“He came off in person exactly as he came off online, as just a really cool guy and a nice guy to be around,” Goldshlag said.
“He really was a really good diplomat and really good at listening to people and making sure that people were getting what they wanted and making deals, doing what I guess diplomats do in the real world,” he said. “In the game world, he really excelled at that.”