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The blurring line between virtual and reality: how one diplomat’s death blended two worlds

File photo.
File photo.

Sean Smith, an American diplomate in Libya, managed to stay in contact with his friends until he was killed in the recent attack on the U.S. embassy. Though his friends were far away in the United States, they chatted with him through the messaging system on the massive multi-player online role-playing game (MMORPG) EVE.

When the attack occurred, the foreign service information management officer for the consulate was playing EVE online and chatting with a teammate, Alex Gianturco. Gianturco said that before the attack, Smith saw suspicious activity.

“We saw one of our ‘police’ that guard the compound taking pictures,” Smith wrote through the chat system. Then Smith wrote, “F***,” and “GUNFIRE,” before disconnecting.

EVE Online is a MMORPG that takes place millennia in the future. Players can start corporations, form alliances and declare war, all while traveling and exploring the galaxy. Many members belong to “guilds,” or groups of players who work together in the game.

Smith’s role in EVE, much like his real life occupation, was the chief diplomat for the guild “Goonswarm”; he was known by his username “Vile Rat.” Recently, members of the social news website Reddit honored Sean Smith by linking to a post he made to the website’s EVE community.

His post he had written reveals his diplomatic skills in the EVE community: “We are only interested in helping you guys find the fun part of EVE right away instead of waiting a year mining veldspar in empire saving up for an opportunity.”

Another post offered unconditional friendship to the community: “If you want a friend, we are here for you.”

After Gianturco reported Smith’s death to the EVE community, members of the EVE online community honored him by naming virtual space stations after Smith and posting in forums about him. They also had an in-game candlelight vigil.

In one post, Gianturco explained that Smith had a very large presence in the game, “If you play this stupid game … you play in a galaxy created in large part by Vile Rat’s talent as a diplomat.”

Gianturco’s comments suggest that Smith’s skills as a diplomat in real life improved his skills as a diplomat in the game. These comments also show how the virtual world and the real world are slowly blending together. Virtual identities, like Smith’s, are having as big of an impact on people as real life identities.

In a comment thread that will be sent to Smith’s family, members of Reddit offered condolences: “Through his work and his play, Sean helped shape two worlds,” WubWubMiller commented, “he will be missed in both.”

As Foreign Service Information Management Official, Smith served in outposts in Baghdad, Montreal, Pretoria and The Hague. He also served on EVE’s Council of Stellar Management, where players could work with game developers to improve the game.

Smith left behind a wife, two kids and an entire online community.

This post relied on information provided by wired.com, the Christian Science Monitor online and reddit.com.

About the Author

Ryan Hagerman

Ryan Hagerman is a Chimes guest writer for the 2012-13 school year.

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