Monday, January 02, 2012

The Guild as a Nexus of Contracts

If you look at the Guild Relations Forums, there are a lot of posts of (ex-)Guild Masters decrying the new Guild Takeover mechanisms. This is where, if a GM does not log on for an entire month, the next highest ranked officer can take over the GM position, demoting the original GM. A lot of the GRF regulars are responding that:

  1. This was the policy all along, it just required a Help ticket previously.
  2. You can't really be a good GM if you don't log on for a month.
  3. If you are going to be gone for a month, you should promote someone trustworthy to the second-in-command rank.

These points are all correct, but I feel that they are missing something. Something about how the relationship between guild and the individuals in guilds has changed over WoW's history, and something about the nature of ownership.


Ownership is complicated concept. To own an item implies that one has a great deal of control over that item, often absolute control. If I own a chair, I can sit on it, move it around, paint it, disassemble it, burn it, chop it to pieces, sell it, give it away, or any other myriad options.

Conversely, if there exists an object to which I can do all of the actions above, then for all intents and purposes, I "own" that object.

In common parlance, a corporation is "owned" by the shareholders. But that relationship is not the same relationship as my ownership of my chair. In fact, it is so different that several academics declare that using the word "own" is wrong and misleading. As Professor Stephen Bainbridge of UCLA puts it:

Ownership implies a thing capable of being owned. To be sure, we often talk about the corporation as though it were such a thing, but when we do so we engage in reification. While it may be necessary to reify the corporation for semantic convenience, it can mislead. Conceptually, the corporation is not a thing, but rather simply a set of contracts between various stakeholders pursuant to which services are provided and rights with respect to a set of assets are allocated. 
Because shareholders are simply one of the inputs bound together by this web of voluntary agreements, ownership is not a meaningful concept in nexus of contracts theory. Someone owns each input, but no one owns the totality. Instead, the corporation is an aggregation of people bound together by a complex web of contractual relationships.

Application to Guilds

The above description does sound a lot like World of Warcraft guilds. Sure, the contracts are implicit rather than explicit, and there's very little money involved, but the basic concept of a "web of voluntary agreements" holds.

But when WoW first started, in practice Guild Masters held such mechanical power over the guild that it could be said--with accuracy--that a Guild Masters "owned" her respective guild. A GM could disband her guild, kick people out, promote people, prevent individuals from talking in guild chat, etc. And there was really nothing a non-GM could do. Because of this power, a lot of GMs felt a true sense of ownership.

However, this ownership did not really matter. Mechanically a guild was nothing more than a glorified chat channel and a tag over your character's head. If the GM abused her authority or disappeared for months, the other guild members simply left and reformed with a new name, with no major loss, save for particularly stylish guild names.

As the years have passed though, the guild entity has taken on more and more "real" weight. First we had common guild banks, then shared repair costs. Then with Cataclysm we got the entire system of guild perks, and automatic guild contributions.

Now, regular members have a higher stake in a guild. If you have to leave, you lose all the perks, all the stuff in the guild bank, etc. Thanks to automatic contributions, everyone in the guild has contributed to the guild's current state. Even if everyone in the guild but the guild master leaves and reforms, there is still significant loss.

Basically, the idea that a guild is a nexus of contracts has gotten more and more important.  Finally, in Patch 4.3, we got the ability to dethrone guild masters in specific circumstances. This is a recognition that the balance of power in a guild is too far weighted on the guild master's side, and some of the power needs to come back, especially in the situation where the guild master simply disappears.

This re-balancing of powers makes perfect and necessary sense if you think of the guild as a nexus of contracts between current players. But it also conflicts with a lot of guild masters' sense of "ownership". To this type of GM, she created the guild, she got the signatures, she did all the work, she has all the power. In a sense, she is merely letting other people play in "her" guild.

In the past, such views would have been perfectly correct, and still are correct. How can you say that a Guild Master does not own a guild if she can kick everyone else out of it?

To this GM, the takeovers are nothing less than theft. The theft of the property she "owns", that she has worked to build up. And thus she has a very visceral reaction to that theft.

That reaction is far more understandable than most of the GRF regulars are willing to admit. And I think it is a somewhat valid reaction. I think that Guild Masters have an understandable sense of ownership of their respective guilds, and the entire lifespan of WoW up to the last few months has encouraged that sense of ownership.

I am not certain that Guild Takeovers were the best option possible in light of the way power is balanced in a guild. But on the other hand, because of that power balance, a GM who disappears for over a month can cripple a guild, and the Guild Takeover becomes necessary.


  1. Well, once the guild owns "property" that has been acquired through combined effort it becomes very, very difficult to justify the GM's "ownership" stand. As an extreme example, the leader of one of my guilds in LOTRO stopped playing. So did the designated heir. Shortly thereafter, so did the rest of the officers.

    After (I believe) 90 days had passed, my lowly Recruit was given the option to "usurp" control of the guild. LOTRO documentation of these systems is truly atrocious, so it's unclear what would have happened should I have not done so. I recruited a couple of new members (all the other members, most of which were alts of the leader and officers, had become inactive) and carried on paying rent on the guild house.

    To cut a long story short, after over a YEAR'S absence, the original leader returned and had the gall to try to reclaim his "property." I can see some justification for allowing him to reclaim his belongings from the guild house and such. But leadership of a guild he'd abandoned for over a year? Umm ... no.

  2. I think the "open policy" on GM ownership is all to the good. It is true previously that you could petition for a takeover, but it was also usually not worth it: people would jump ship and reform on a whim.

    However, with guild perks, reps and levels, people have become a lot more invested in their guilds. I wouldn't be against the time-frame being bumped up to 45 days (sometimes your gamecard expires at an inconvenient time), but I agree that not being able to log in is a lapse on the part of the "leader." If you abandon your property others can pick it up. I don't understand why it's a difficult concept.

    This actually seems more akin, to me, of players "saving" names by rolling a new character until they get around to using it. It *used* to be a fairly viable strategy for saving new names on a server; however, now it's fairly common to be able to petition a GM and request a name that is being reserved in this manner.

  3. I dislike this policy for completely selfish reasons. For roughly six years I played WoW intensely and ran my guild. I did all the recruiting and promotion and conflict resolution. I handled rosters and did more than my share of raid leading. I organized real life meets and Secret Santas and paid real life money for website hosting and voice servers.

    My guild decided almost en masse to quit WoW shortly after Cataclysm, and the result is that if someone were so inclined they could petition to have my guild taken away from me. The guild that I have put years of my life into.. gone. Despite all my hard work apparently I do not deserve the luxury of being able to "retire" along with everyone else.

    I'm fortunate in that my fellow retired guildies have no interest in usurping my guild. However, frankly WoW's content is so incredibly cyclical (lots to do.. nothing to do.. lots to do..) that it seems ludicrous to insist that guilds are far more active than their patches belie.

  4. It is a fine line for members or new leaders of the guild to decide if they should remove the GM. Does the original as if members try and take over a guild when the GM has stopped playing.

  5. Oops sorry, for that last comment hit enter before I got finished..
    So, what I was trying to say... if members decide to take over a guild will they then immediately remove his charaters from the guild? or let them stay? I am sure that will be up to the new leaders and on how that old GM left them. If he quit playing due to RL stuff or just decided to quit and abandon his guildies.

    I have had toons in a guild that was raiding and progressing but the GM was never on due to RL stuff. The officers did not have the power to remove people from the guild, just the GM. Issues and conflicts arose and they did not have the power to remove these people from the guild and they wouldn't gquit. Eventually the officers decided it was best to just create a new guild where they would have the control they needed in case this situation arose again.

  6. I am not a big fan of socialism. I mean the GM OWNS the guild because he can kick anyone he wants. He is the boss.

    He probably put the gold in to buy the 7th and 8th tabs. You going to give him fair market value for that? He probably recruited and built the guild to where it is now... so he gets a little bored at the end of the expansion and all of the sudden he is kicked out and has to sleep on the street! A little harsh I think.

    I really would like to see a less permanent solution say the second in command takes over and has acting guild leader powers until the GM comes back or something. A month is not a long time either.. I mean some Europeans go on sabbatical for longer than that.

    The solution I would think would work best is allow people to transfer to a new guild at the same rep-levels and perks as the old guild somehow... I have not thought out the specifics and I see how this could be majorly abused but if the GM is gone for a month allow everyone to pack up their bags and transfer to another guild retaining their current reputation level.. or allow them to create a new guild and transfer to that with all the same perks... I dunno just shooting ideas off the top of my head...

  7. As many have already said, a month is not a long time. I have been absent from WoW for a month in the past, without having any intention to quit. Real life issues arise which can temporarily make it not possible to log on; long holidays, even!

    Some people have suggested that whenever you are planning to be absent for a month or more, you can temporarily promote some officer you trust. That's not always the case. Often, you don't know the officers of your guild (IRL). In that case, what could be the basis of such trust? That they are good at raiding? Can play their character? Are funny or interesting in guild-chat? Can solve problems for guild members? You really may not know the first thing about them, and in such a case, trusting that when you come back you'll be re-instated as GM can be a step too far.