The power of online community at a sad time

By Anne Collier

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tribute to Sean Smith – dad, online gamer, and Benghazi-based State Department computer expert – was “nothing compared to the memorials that were offered up by many of the 400,000 paying subscribers” of the space fantasy game EVE Online,” reports. It said the memorials “flooded social media and gaming [discussion] boards [and] many gamers renamed their space stations in his honor.” Maybe as a comfort when he didn’t want to worry his family, maybe just to pass the time when consulate employees couldn’t go anywhere, Smith, who was an “avid gamer and married father of two,” was chatting with fellow players hours before he was killed in the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, reportedly of smoke inhalation as the consulate building burned. [He was one of four Americans killed and nearly 30 Libyans wounded or killed in a two-part attack, among them Amb. Christopher Stevens, the first US ambassador to be killed in an attack since 1979, reported today.]

“Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed Smith, who’d served the State Department for 10 years at US outposts in Baghdad, Pretoria, Montreal and The Hague, as ‘one of our best’.” And what struck me about the Herald story about Smith’s experience in both real and virtual worlds was how admired he was for the same skills in both – for his diplomatic talent and interests in the game-world every bit as much as technical skills in the “real” world of diplomacy. In EVE, he was “known as ‘Vile Rat,’ a smart but tough diplomat and spy who worked on behalf of a major alliance called Goonswarm.” Fellow players had elected him to serve on EVE’s Council of Stellar Management, which was authorized in-world to liaise with the game’s developers. The Iceland-based game EVE Online is a fascinating experiment in online + offline governance (I wrote about it in 2009 here), whereby the Council of which Smith was a member grows in “power” with the game’s developers in proportion to its ability to grow its influence with fellow players. It’s an experiment in starting “civilization” from scratch. So this was very real parallel diplomatic work in which Smith was engaged, and he is clearly missed deeply by those who were engaged in it with him and who understood the level of skill required. An in-game friend of six years said he focused “relentlessly on diplomacy as a strategic tool,” according to the Herald. EVE’s developers joined with the players, issuing a statement , too, “overwhelmingly saddened” by Smith’s death. Being able to memorialize a friend and collaborator online is small but very real comfort.

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