When we see headlines about strife and unrest in foreign lands, it always seems sort of distant. Upon looking closer at the deaths of four U.S. embassy personnel in Libya last week, it’s clear that’s not the case. As Americans, we have a bond with all four of the murder victims, but gamers have a special kinship with Sean Smith.
Smith, the Foreign Service Information Management Officer killed in the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi on Sept. 11, was an experienced tradesman who had seen service in South Africa, Iraq and the Netherlands. He was a husband and a father. He was also a gamer and a member of some of the Internet’s strongest and longest-running communities.
In the world of “Eve Online,” a long-running science fiction MMORPG that is notorious for its inter-faction politics and grand scale, Smith was better known to his online friends as VileRat, a member of the Goonswarm faction. “Eve Online” is a game in which diplomacy and social connections are more important than fast reflexes, and VileRat’s actions quite literally changed the universe in his wake.
Smith also posted on the website Something Awful, one of the most popular humor destinations on the Internet. That site’s denizens, commonly known as “goons,” are often mocked elsewhere on the Web, but they’ve already started collecting funds for Smith’s widow and children.
Chillingly, on the night of his murder, Smith sent a message to the leader of his “Eve Online” guild that started with the message, “Assuming we don’t die tonight.” Smith, along with his co-workers, was holed up inside the embassy building as protesters swarmed outside. He was actually connected to guildmates over online chat service Jabber as the attack was happening, his last two messages reading “F–K” and “GUNFIRE” before disconnecting.
After word of his death was released to the community, the virtual denizens of “Eve Online” created a memorial to VileRat in a unique and touching way. In the game, ships can drop a “cyno,” a kind of beacon, to mark a shortcut to a point in space. Thousands of players, friend and foe alike, converged to drop cyno fields in close proximity, creating a massive, shimmering blue sphere in space like a field of candles at a memorial.
Smith, along with the other three men killed, is a sadly innocent victim of a disgusting game of ideological chess being played by men with nothing to lose. The terrorists who stormed the embassy were able to use a protest as cover, a protest that was allegedly spawned by outrage over a movie made by right-wing U.S. interests — including Fundamentalist preacher Terry Jones — that portrayed Muhammad as a violent pedophile and Muslims as homosexuals and child molesters. If that’s true, it provides a totally meaningless motive for these four casualties. The men who made that movie are thousands of miles away from the carnage that erupted as a result, as are the forces in the Arab world fueling the fire on the streets.
The next time you read a headline about casualties overseas, no matter what side they’re on, take a moment to remember that you could have laughed at their YouTube comments, deathmatched them in Halo or followed them on Twitter. We’re all connected, and we have more in common than we think.