The headlines around the world about Sean Smith last year were mostly about how he left this Earth. But this is a story about what he did while he was here. This is a story about Sean Smith's life—about what he did in the so-called "real" world and what he did in a virtual galaxy where he was a Machiavellian legend.
For about a decade, in cities around the world, people knew Sean as a guy in the U.S. State Department. He made sure computers and networks worked.
In the wild world of the massively-multiplayer online game Eve Online, which Sean logged into from those various points on the globe, he was known as Vile Rat.
For the State Department, he was an Information Management Officer. He was an expert IT guy who signed up for postings in places both safe and dangerous. He was in Pretoria and Baghdad, Montreal and The Hague and then—for what was only supposed to be a few weeks—Benghazi, Libya. It is in that last place where he and three other Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to that country, were killed on September 11, 2012, by anti-American militants. It's there that his story was cut too short.
In Eve, Sean briefly was in the top echelon of the game's player-run government. His influence in the game actually grew for more than half a decade. He rose from ordinary player to master spy to diplomat for the mighty GoonSwarm alliance. He toppled rivals with the soft nudge of verbal persuasion. He helped his alliance win a war among player alliances that raged for three years. He even made peace with the Russians.
"Sean was a quiet and intense guy," Alex Gianturco, the long-time Eve player and leader of GoonSwarm recently told me. Gianturco is known in-game as The Mittani and wrote a moving tribute to his friend last fall. He met Vile Rat in 2006 in the game and in person, since then, when Sean was between State Department postings or at Eve meet-ups. "He was sort of coiled like a whip, very very smart. Hated the limelight, hated attention."
"He was so humble about his gaming," Heather Smith, Sean's widow, told me over the phone from the Netherlands earlier this week. "He would get rather embarrassed when he was elevated to anything other than just a guy who plays Eve."
But Sean wasn't an ordinary Eve player, a fact Heather encountered time and again. She recalled meeting another Eve player in person. "A guy came up to me and, I said, 'I'm Mrs. Vile Rat'—I didn't play Eve, so I was always Mrs. Vile Rat—and the guy was like, 'No way! He's a legend!'
"And I, like, died laughing. I thought it was the funniest thing I ever heard...I'm pretty sure I brought that up at least once every six months."
Sean Smith was an ex-Air Force guy, born in 1978 and raised in San Diego. By the turn of the century he was stationed in Okinawa, suffering the plight of any Air Force man who loves burgers but lives on an island that's all about seafood. He didn't fly jets. He worked on radios. And he played online games, which he loved.
Sean and Heather met in a MUD, one of the oldest of old-school multiplayer online games. It was an all-text game, but all Sean needed to make an impression was a few choice words. "The first thing he typed to me was 'You need to leave your guild or else I will kill you,' Heather recalled. "Classically diplomatic, even then."
Heather was a newbie player, just level five or so. Sean was angry at the guy who ran her guild. "So he was either killing all the people in the guy's guild or intimidating them," Heather said. "I was like, 'What do I care, it's not my fight?'" So she bailed on that guild. That was a classic Sean Smith victory.
"He was always trying to move the pieces and see how things went," Heather said. "He was really good at reading people to get them to either see his way or he could mediate in a way that he could get what he needed out of it—in a nice way, most of the time, I'm sure."
Heather and Sean got past the threats. They started talking outside of the game and became friends. He was in Japan; she was in Atlanta. He moved to New Jersey. She moved to Washington, D.C. They fell in love, they moved in together and Sean joined the Foreign Service. He'd be working for the State Department and, along with Heather, would be moving all around the world.
First, they went to South Africa. He was stationed in Pretoria. Everyone barbecued there. That was good. Better than having to always suffer through seafood.
Most gamers who rise to fame among their peers do so because they're proficient at a given game. That proficiency is usually displayed through aggression or speed or both. Many games are competitive, simulate violence or run on a timer. Mastering these games—the Street Fighters, the StarCrafts, the CounterStrikes—means being able to smash, shoot, grapple or maim another player before they do that to you. Or, for some gamers, glory comes in simply sprinting through a single-player game faster than anyone else. You train on Super Mario Bros. and try to race through the whole game in five minutes.
More rare are gamers like Sean Smith who earned their rep without getting much virtual blood on their hands or performing any feats of in-game dexterity. Sean gained his rep from the way he interacted with other gamers, from his machinations and political maneuvering. He wasn't a leader but a master of the shadows. He preferred to stay out of the spotlight and to lend support.
Sean was, to Alex, the eventual head of GoonSwarm, a great right hand, a great consigliere. Think of the best movers and shakers in the Game of Thrones, perhaps—not the ones who used the sword but who favored the cunning deal. "He was thankfully a lot less honorable than Ned Stark," Alex remarked to me, remembering one of the failed right-hand-men of the Thrones saga, "otherwise we would have been all screwed."
He was a good liar?
"Oh, he was the best."
To express just how well Sean played Eve, Alex told me about one of Sean's first great in-game acts. Sean was in the GoonSwarm Intelligence Agency, a group within the game started by Alex.
Eve is technically a game about warring spaceships and mineral-mining but it's really about the politics of its massive player groups, tens of thousands of gamers around the world aligned in various "corporations", who all vie for existence in a single shared galaxy. In late 2006 and early 2007 GoonSwarm were the newcomers to Eve, which had been running since 2003.
GoonSwarm were upstarts. The group consisted of members of the forums for the rambunctious humor website Something Awful. Goons regularly decided to descend on online games to exert their mischievous, grief-inducing influence. These were the kind of people who would infiltrate Eve and start up some crafty spygames. Cue Sean's first big moment:
"We wanted to get him placed highly in an enemy organization, which was trying to kill us," Alex recalled. "The enemy alliance was called Lotka Volterra, and they had been attacking Goonfleet and messing around. Vile Rat came up with this—in hindsight—sort of a cack-handed scheme where we would fake that Vile Rat had gone 'Fuck Goons.' 'Fuck Goons' is what we call someone who is a traitor.
"So what we did was we had one of our other directors, a guy named Sorenson, fill up a hauler, which is an industrial ship in Eve—a defenseless space truck, basically—filled it full of valuable minerals, and we had Vile Rat in an Interceptor, which is a small, fast fighter-type ship, blow it up in public.
"The thing about Eve is that, whenever anybody blows anything up, it produces a hard record called a killmail—you kill a ship in Eve and it’s not like in Call of Duty where it’s like, 'I killed somebody,' it leaves a record: what was on their ship, how you killed them and a lot of crunchy details. So there’s a record of death. This is important, because, when Vile Rat blew up this hauler full of valuable minerals and what-have-you, it proved his treason to everyone. Viler Rat has gone 'Fuck Goons' and is joining Lotka Volterra.
"He was able to say, 'I can’t stand the CEO, look I’ve got Goonblood all over my hands, take me.' And they did. And he was our agent within the Shinra corporation in Lotka Volterra for many months. Eventually, he came in from the cold, when the intelligence value we had from that was less than the value of having Vile Rat on our side. But we torched the ground that Lotka Volterra had. We took all their space. They disbanded the alliance they had...Vile Rat was a major part of that."
Sean played Eve to unwind, Heather remembers. He enjoyed being online. He enjoyed acting out there. He was younger than many of the people in the embassies where he was stationed and didn't talk about gaming. They didn't know about Vile Rat. He and Heather often stuck to themselves.
Eve was one place online where Sean could find more people like him, people who got into the drama of safe but wild adventure. He also enjoyed the energy of the Something Awful forums, where he became a moderator on the debate and discussion forums. He talked politics. A lot. Alex recalls that he, Sean and many other people on SA were libertarians but that, over time, they shifted to being "a flaming leftist."
For all of his skullduggery in Eve, Sean's friends at Something Awful were impressed with how unusually reasonable he was.
"You know, it’s hard to respect people with an opposing viewpoint on the Internet," Something Awful editor Zack Parsons told me. "There is no incentive, but he did, and I think he tried to change minds instead of just shout out his opinion and leave it at that."
But that was in the forums. In Eve, if someone needed to pay, Sean would make them pay. "He was so mean sometimes," Heather says now, with a chuckle, "He would tell me stories and I would be like, 'How could you do that to another person?'
"He would laugh and say, of course, they were being idiots."
And in real life? "He was always known as a very helpful customer-service IT guy," she said. "When a woman would cry about not getting something to work at 5:05, he would stop what he was doing and, instead of putting a ticket in, he would calmly help and do that kind of thing. He was very on the up-and-up." He was also a father of two and talked proudly about his kids to anyone who would listen.
This cocktail of personality—the cool-headed, open-minded occasional griefer, as it were—produced the great Eve diplomat that Alex revered and others in Eve feared. In embassies around the world, Sean may have been doing IT for other diplomats, but in Eve, he became one. More specifically, he became a diplomat who wins.
"Sean would always present a friendly face except when he was rattling his saber," Alex told me. "Unless you had really pissed him off he wouldn’t come down on you. Even if you were an enemy he would be willing to talk to you and would be very friendly."
That's what made him a great diplomat, and that's what helped GoonSwarm turn the tide and eventually win one of Eve's two Great Wars.
Alex tells the tale, one that begins with GoonSwarm at odds with the mightier Band of Brothers, which was allied with a group called Mercenary Coalition. The Coalition was an ostensibly independent group of players for hire. You know, mercenaries. "The problem was that dissonance between what they thought they were and how the leader of Band of Brothers treated them grew very harsh," Alex said. "Mercenary Coalition... were able to win a string of successes and then the leader of Band of Brothers wrote this big public post taking credit for it. Which pissed off a lot of people in Mercenary Coalition.
"During this time, under the table, Vile Rat had quietly developed a relationships with Seleene, who was the leader of Mercenary Coalition...Now Vile Rat had a silver tongue and was very sympathetic. Even though he was the enemy, he established this relationship and he had worked on this relationship. Over a period of months he essentially helped Seleene see that Mercenary Coalition was being trivialized and treated like pets, basically, by Band of Brothers."
In a tribute after Sean's death last fall, Mark "Seleene" Heard, then a member of Eve's player-run government recalled this moment. "VR never offered me any deals, threatened, or presented some grand scheme. Because the anti-BoB train was already in motion within MC, like any good diplomat Vile Rat just made it clear that the people he represented were not necessarily the 'bad guys'."
Back to Alex: "And almost entirely due to Vile Rat’s persuasion, I don’t want to say he Wormtongued… he swayed them and eventually Mercenary Coalition broke away from Band of Brothers and tried to form its own block on the border of Band of Brothers space, which was very foolish. This was the pirate alliance. It only lasted a few months, because, as soon as they broke away from Band of Brothers, half of the people considered them to be traitors—and also half the people in Mercenary Coalition considered them to be traitors.
"A huge gigantic drama [ensued], which ultimately ended in two of GoonSwarm’s greatest enemies basically killing each other for us because of what Sean had pulled off. That was a huge coup.
"If I were to point at two moments in the Great War that completely changed things—the biggest holy crap moments of the Great War—one was disbanding Band of Brothers, which was my spy thing, and the other one was Sean taking out Mercenary Coalition just using persuasion. Because even after they disbanded Band of Brothers, which happened a year later, if Mercenary Coalition had still been around and allied with them, we might not have had the force to torch them."
Vile Rat's diplomacy was so successful, he started a diplomacy wing in GoonSwarm. He called it the Corps Diplomatique. "Sean realized that the coalition we were in was getting so big that we needed an entire diplomatic section," Alex said. Sean ran it and put applicants through a wringer. He'd give them hypothetical situations and require them to write essays about how to solve crises. He built a corps of 10 diplomats, all of whom would meet with friends and rivals to build relationships. In other words, the real-life State Department employee started a State Department in Eve.
Sean played Eve from computers around the world. Much of the playing he did was in a Jabber client—in chat. He didn't need to fly the game's space ships. He needed to talk to people. He did this from the Middle East, from Europe, North America, wherever.
When he was playing in Baghdad he was far from his family. Baghdad was too dangerous in 2007, so Heather stayed in Atlanta.
"The problem wasn’t so much the shitty internet," Alex said of the Baghdad posting, "but was more that they were fucking shelling him with missiles from Sadr City."
"I'd be on the phone with him or he'd call me during it," Heather remembered. "I was a part of several of those rocket attacks."
She said Sean would do his best to joke it off, to bond with his friends online or band together with his colleagues in Baghdad. "He was not a commando guy," she said. He wasn't macho. He didn't try to play the hero. He just tried to keep the computers running even if some of the locals were quite violently showing that they wanted the Americans out. "He was just there for the mission," she said. "If no one else would volunteer and he knew he could do it. He would do it."
So rockets would be fired at Saddam Hussein's old palace and Sean would have to jump off of Jabber and take cover. Alex and Vile Rat's other Eve friends got used to it. Sean always logged back on.
But Iraq was rough, and Alex recalled that Sean came back a different kind of person. "He changed in that, like many veterans, he came back a little more paranoid and jumpy for a while. It took him awhile to calm down and reintegrate. He would occasionally have hot-flashes of anger." He normalized. He got posted to Montreal.
He became himself again. Except for one thing. Sean got to Montreal and excitedly told Alex all about a restaurant that just served foie gras. Sean Smith was officially no longer just a burger guy.
Montreal was followed by The Hague. Sean was also able to take time off to go to Iceland for Eve's Fanfest. A year ago, he was there as a member of the player government. Fanfest is happening this week. He'd have gone. Instead, late last summer, he agreed to go to Benghazi. The mission there and what followed is detailed in an unclassified State Department report.
In Jabber, Sean's last words were:
[vile_rat 9/11/12 2:40 PM]: FUCK
[vile_rat 9/11/12 2:40 PM]: gunfire
The State Department report tells the awful story of what occurred next. The compound filled with armed terrorists hunting for Americans. American security agents trying to whisk Sean and Ambassador Christopher Stevens to safety. Taking shelter. The building they were in set on fire set by the attackers. And then the resulting smoke that filled the room Sean and the Ambassador were in. They couldn't breathe. They didn't survive.
Four Americans, Sean Smith included, were killed that day, September 11, 2012.
"I was in shock when it happened, initially," Alex told me. Heather, understandably, didn't want to talk about it.
Friends and families mourned. Eve players posted tributes and, in an extraordinary display, renamed hundreds of outposts to memorialize Vile Rat. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emotionally eulogized all four men and credited the support of Sean's online friends. The events in Benghazi became a political football in last fall's Presidential election, as debates raged about embassy security and the administration's account of events.
"I think pretty often about what he would make of the stupid crap that followed in the wake of his death," Something Awful's Zack Parsons told me. "So many people in politics said and did so many stupid things. I hope he would have laughed. Or posted the thread about it."
What Parsons did was help start a fundraiser. "The Something Awful community and the Eve community, State Department friends, well-wishers and even people who might have heard about him on the news all contributed to the fund that raised $127,001 for Sean’s family," Zack told me.
"Hundreds of them left messages of condolences. The money went directly to Sean’s wife and kids. Money will never take the place of the love of a human being, but I hope it helped to bring his family peace and stability in the midst of uncertainty."
Heather and Sean's anniversary was this week. They should have been going to Iceland. He should have been engaging in some interstellar diplomacy.
Instead, on May 3, Heather will be in Washington, D.C. There, Sean Smith will be awarded the Thomas Jefferson Star, in recognition of his service to his country. His name will be inscribed on a memorial wall by the American Foreign Service Association to honor those who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
The name on the wall will probably be Sean Smith. But everyone should also remember that master of spycraft and diplomacy, that forum moderator and expert gamer. He wasn't an ordinary Eve player. He was the exceptional Vile Rat.
Top image for this story from an Eve tribute to Sean Smith and features Sean and his Vile Rat avatar; other photos of Sean in this article were provided by Heather Smith. The desert one shows Smith in Oman while he was in the Air Force in 2002. The other is from New York City, 2003.