Grief, in an online community, can be a shockingly intimate thing. People who have known each other as a collection of digital avatars and assumed names gather together to mourn the genuinely painful loss of one of their own. The best and most generous parts of a community's nature often show when tragedy strikes it.
Sean Smith, known as Vile Rat in Eve Online and on the Something Awful forums, was one of four Americans killed in the attack on the consulate in Libya yesterday. In the hours since, the communities he left behind have rallied to honour his legacy in the way that only the internet really can.
Smith was highly regarded in Eve Online, where he filled the role of a Diplomat. It seems likely that his experiences working with the foreign service, even in a support role, influenced him. His skill and dedication to the role were legendary among players, and his influence was pervasive and far-reaching in the best possible way. He also served on the Council of Stellar Management (CSM), a panel of players voted into place by other players who represented player concerns in meetings with developer CCP.
The news first spread from Alex "The Mittani" Gianturco. Gianturco, head of the corporation of which Smith was a member, broadcast to the group:
My people, I have greivous news. Vile Rat has been confirmed to be KIA in Benghazi; his family has been informed and the news is likely to break out on the wire services soon. Needless to say, we are in shock, have no words, and have nothing but sympathy for his family and children. I have known Vile Rat since 2006, he was one of the oldest of old-guard goons and one of the best and most effective diplomats this game has ever seen. His family are in our thoughts and prayers.
Gianturco shared a moving eulogy on his site, describing how the two had first met in 2006 and become friends in the years since. Another friend, known online as Seleene and, before that, as Eve Online employee CCP Abathur, penned a likewise emotional perspective on Smith, emphasising that behind every avatar sits an actual human being:
He was a genuinely warm and funny guy. In CSM meetings or discussions Sean was passionate about his positions and, even if you disagreed with him, articulate enough to present his arguments in a way that invited further discussion. I got to enjoy spending several quiet moments with him talking about non-EVE stuff and getting to know him better. It's times like that which I preach about to many who have never been to an EVE player meet or FanFest - once you meet the man or woman behind the pixels, you will never be able to think of them in the same way again. The experience is almost always a positive one.
Ned "CCP Manifest" Coker, of CCP public relations, told us, "CCP and its employees are overwhelmingly saddened by the news of Sean Smith's passing, as we are when we learn of any player who is tragically lost. Many of us interacted with him professionally and personally and, honestly, it feels like our words are lost adrift — amongst such a tremendous, soul-affirming outpouring from the EVE community." He added that the CSM is working on a guest dev post in Smith's honour, which will likely be posted tomorrow.
The communities very suddenly missing a well-known member, meanwhile, are coping with the loss as best as the internet can. From a distance, there is no ability to give someone a hug, be a shoulder to cry on, or even bring over a casserole. Words often feel inadequate, and yet when a connection or a friendship has grown and flourished mainly on a message board, words are sometimes all there is. The threads Smith frequented, ranging from discussion of the Middle East to foreign service and, of course, Eve Online have all become makeshift memorials where friends and mourners cluster together to work through their shock.
When words seem insufficient, the impulse to give, and to give generously, often appears. Helping to provide for someone's family is one of very few concrete actions that mourners can take from such a distance. Offers to donate to a fund in Smith's name have flown far and wide, and Something Awful moderators have been in touch with his widow to organize one.
Less tangible, but no less heartfelt, gestures have appeared throughout Eve Online. At least two hundred (and counting) in-game outposts, player-made space stations that provide certain services, have been renamed in honour of Smith. Not only the stations owned by his own group, the Goonswarm Federation, but also outposts belonging to a significant array of ally and rival corporations as well.
"His legend lives on, RIP VR"
"RIP Vile Rat"
"In honour of Sean-VR"
Eve Online, and particularly the Goon players in it who met on Something Awful, is not known for being a warm, caring, supportive community, at least not from the outside. We more often hear of trolls and exploits, or of players trying hard to wreck the economy just to see if they can. It's an environment that would not necessarily seem to be the grounds in which a diplomatic soul could thrive. And yet, Smith did.
The posts he left show a thoughtful campaigner, able to lay his point of view cleanly on the table and debate it. They also show a forum wrangler, one who could play dirty kickball with the best of them, and give as good as he got. Most of us would wish for our better arguments to be our last words. Smith didn't get to plan. The last post he left on the Eve Online forums was a quippy one-liner: "What this guy said, except I don't actually mean it."
The communities Smith was a part of have rallied as best they possibly can against the tragic, violent loss of one of their own. For all that the game and the Goons who play it have developed a negative reputation, today they have manifested genuine mourning, with warmth and a sense of mutual support that we should all be lucky enough to find.
Those of us who dwell in online communities or multiplayer games leave a second self behind us, a digital life bobbing along in our pixellated wake. Too often, it takes a tragic loss to make us think about the true people behind the avatars we know. A set of internet artifacts left behind by a soul cut off too young becomes a pile of last words frozen in time — fossilized conversations, hauntingly unfinished, that linger forever.