There be dragons! - Thesis on Management Strategy in WoW

@Dalans just linked me to this:

This is a 164 page academic paper from a student in Finland on how raiding guilds manage and strategize. It’s a lot to read (and quite dense) so I’ve taken the liberty of reading it for you. I believe I’ve covered most all of the key points; add your discussion below!


Academics can (and should) do more empirical studies into management strategy, as its largely unexplored, and being involved first-hand in virtual communities provides the same quality of insight as classic research done immersed in other social groups of the day (the author cites a study done with Chicago gang life at the turn of the century as an example).


A series of essays that provide deeply technical categorization and analysis to concepts any member of a raiding guild in WoW would know and understand. Since it is an academic paper, it goes to great lengths to provide research data and examples that, to a common WoW player, would bore them to death. I appreciate the detail, but I doubt many others would…outside of a University setting.

Mostly, the thesis covers the “what” and not too much of the “why”; sadly, very little insight can be gleaned by leaders of failed raiding guilds searching for answers. There are a few nuggets, though, and I’ll touch on them.

  • Key Terms:
  • Ethnography: The study of cultural phenomena.
  • Strategy-as-Practice: Everyday process, practices and activities involved in the making of strategy.
  • Organization: For purposes of academia, the author uses this term interchangeably with ‘guild’.
  • Boundary: That which separates and identifies a member of an organization from the “outside world”, a.k.a. the ‘rules’ as defined by the guild.

Author Stats

  • Based out of Europe (Finland).
  • He had two raiding characters on the Alliance: Priest (Shadow) and Hunter.
  • He collected data from multiple viewpoints: Low-key, trial member…all the way up to founding officer involved in guild/raid decision making.
  • He was involved with five different guilds over the course of the study. They are broken down into type, his role, and the fate of the guild:
  • Casual/Friendly, Member, Left to pursue competitive raiding.
  • Competitive/Progression, Member, Collapsed.
  • Casual/Friendly, Officer (Recruitment), Collapsed.
  • Competitive/Progression, Founder/Raider Leader, Self-terminated
  • Casual/Friendly, Founder/Officer, Self-terminated
  • The study took place between Jan 2008 (mid-TBC) and Aug 2011 (mid-Cata).
  • 39 months of fieldwork, 35 directly related to raiding.
  • Raiding Schedule
  • high end: 28 hrs over 5 nights/week
  • low end: 12 hrs over 3 nights/week
  • Total fieldwork: 1230 hours of raiding-related data collection (to compare, I ballpark someone like myself or a Vanilla DoDer like @Klocker at closer to 2600 hours of raiding in DoD [8 hrs/week x 48 weeks/yr x 7 yrs]).
  • The author got sciatica at one point due to so much preparation in gearing for application to a raiding guild (TBC era).

Management Modes

Raiding guilds manage by moving through three “modes” of operation, each of which reflect the current stability of the guild:

Foundational (Highly Unstable)

1. Core Formation

  • Identify core members
  • Assign tasks among the core

2. Normative Sculpting

  • Establish overall guild mission and strategy
  • Establish guild norms and values

Toolbox (Moderately Unstable)

3. Recruitment

  • recruit new members
  • manage hr

4. System Design

  • Establish new support systems
  • Modify/administer existing systems

5. Strategizing

  • Making broad decisions concerning in-game activities
  • Making decisions on resource distribution

6. Conflict Resolution

  • Disciplinary action
  • Enforcing guild’s norms / values

Routine (Stable)

7. Staffing

  • managing day-to-day personnel demands (raid rotations, bench, etc.)

8. System Maintenance

  • Update content of existing support systems

9. Tactizing

  • Making situational decisions on group tactics in on-going game situations

10. Mediation

  • Promote daily social cohesion of group

Observations / Insights

  • The author draws analogies between guilds and open-source communities. Boundaries are less based on economics (since nobody is making money) and more on how well the members can improvise practical solutions to emerging amorphous obstacles, while maintaining contradicting demands (Bulletin-Board Organization)

  • Bulletin-Board Organizations have a strong condition of voluntary membership and their actions are controlled by coercive power excised by management. It cannot be assumed that they make decisions/act on behaviors as result of a collective commitment (unless they can choose which rules apply them individually).

  • Small, tight-knit groups (fellowships) lack the need for explicit boundaries, as goals are openly shared/agreed upon among members. High degree of trust keeps fellowship intact and focused on goals.

  • These tight-knit groups (fellowships) are also known as the “core”, typically formed off existing friendships in the real-world or extended in-game socialization.

  • As goals can no longer be met by fellowships, they seek out other fellowships with similarly defined goals, ultimately merging into an organization (larger raiding guild of multiple subgroups/cliques).

  • As management demands of a raiding guild increases, strategies often shift from fellowship (the good of all) to necessity (the good of a few)

  • Complex management tasks (of larger guilds) erode trust-based collaboration.

  • Most time is spent hovering between Routine and Toolbox.

  • Guilds collapse when Toolbox won’t solve problems, and a relapse to Foundational can’t be sustained.

Emergence of Strategic Organization

Guilds have a finite lifecycle. The duration of the lifecycle is defined by the “mentality” of the core that comprise it which have a direct influence on both the guild’s stability and complexity to manage it.

The guild lifecycle

  1. Individual (one player)
  2. Fellowship (a small clique)
  3. Organizational (large community comprised of multiple subgroups/cliques)
  4. Return to Fellowship (guild exodus of a particular subgroup)

Three “mentalities” of groups/guilds

  1. “we” : Collectivism - Focus on the good of the guild, “One-for-all and all-for-one.”
  2. “progroup” : Conscientiousness - Focus on the good of the individual group, “Divide-and-conquer.”
  3. “I” : Competition - Focus on the individual. “Every man for himself.”

Effect of “mentalities” on guild stability

  1. “we” : Stable - Groups’ intent matches guild ethos, guild is ultimately very static with rigid boundaries that are difficult to change.
  2. “progroup” : Semi-Stable - Groups’ intent matches guild ethos, but feel no obligation to commit/loyalty to other groups
  3. "I: : Unstable - Opportunistic groups leave the core once personal needs are fulfilled.

Administration Effort on “mentalities”

  1. “we” : Low - Management ultimately can’t propose any boundary changes.
  2. “progroup” : High - Low social inter-group cohesion + high performance capacity = tons of admin/complex rules.
  3. “I” : Low - Opportunism drives boundary into such a state of flux that management isn’t practical/reasonable.

Observations / Insights

  • One of the primary causes for guild collapse is guilds that push themselves harder than what they are capable of, due to constraints placed on them by the game (removing a mount, achievements, time limits, etc.) – It leads to risk that violates the guild’s norms and leads to collapse.
  • Guilds that favor/prioritize casual/family-friendly fun over progression end up mediating conflict on a daily basis.
  • Guilds have a typical lifespan of 1-3 years.
  • Two of the author’s guilds collapsed due to the following:
  • They were unwilling to the guild’s rules to adapt to new obstacles.
  • The fabric of guild degenerated from sustained unwillingness of the core to adapt.

Memorable Quotations

“The games we play reveal something important about who we are, and organizations are permeated by them.”

– we choose communities in online gaming based on who we are as a person and what speaks to us, which is evidence enough to not dismiss the medium as childish or unimportant.

“…neither methodological individualism nor large structural constructs such as institutions or discourse can alone account for the outcomes of actions performed in organizations. Rather, there are in-between actantial structures, which are essentially small close-knit groups based on social bonds (friends, common history, culture) that exert power and perform actions collectively.”

– The success and longevity of raiding guilds are equally subject to the whim of its subgroups / cliques and their individual agendas, rather than simply to the guilds’ overarching rules and the level of involvement in guild/raid-related discussion (guild chat, forums, etc.). The author contends that managing a raiding guild is more of a “two-way street” than a top-down oligarchy.

“…similarly, strategic ambiguity can be used as a rhetoric micro-practice for enabling the coexistence of different, at times even conflicting, goals within organizations”

– Keeping members of a guild on a need-to-know basis is a perfectly valid way to keep the peace and maintain guild-aligned goals, particularly if it is comprised of subgroups / cliques that have different agendas.

“…[often] strategy is seen from a Neo-Marxist view, with strategy being a discourse through which elites manifests class, control and domination in contemporary organizations.”

– Managing a raiding guild is often done in a meritocratic system, valuing and rewarding the specialists, which in turn drive refinements to the guild’s management strategy that continues to favor and cater to the specialist-mentality.

“It is unlikely that a fellowship would demonstrate altruistic behavior by staying in an organization after it has stopped providing the fellowship with utility, as the creation of utility beyond its own means was the reason the fellowship joined the organization in the first place.”

– If a 10-Man guild joins a 25-Man guild in order to acquire the best loot in the game, rather than for the experience of progression, the 10-Man guild will inevitably part ways with its host once membership in the 25-Man roster is no longer a prerequisite.

“Those that continue to survive have an internal selection environment that reflects the relevant selection pressures in the external environment and produces externally viable new strategic variations that are internally selected and retained”

– Guilds that survive do so because they are attuned to the struggles imposed upon them by the game’s rules and proactively adapt to them, building a healthy set of strategies to deal with obstacles.

“…internal nurturing of unique/hard-to-imitate resources and capabilities can foster competitive advantage”

– Taking care of your best players is a valid strategy in producing a successful raiding guild that meets goals (kills bosses, progresses)

“The more an organization is based on acting through a ‘we’ mode collective commitment, the more longevity it will have”

– Reciprocity criteria produces a strong sense of shared agency, reducing the likelihood that individuals leave. If individual members can be made to feel like they somehow are “part owner”, their “investment” makes them less likely to leave.

That’s just volume 1 of the abridged version, clearly.

Sweet Jesus, in all seriousness.

I’m only 60 pages in so far, but I’m taking notes! I’ll have it condensed for you fine folks that have better things to do.

(Honestly, I’m not being sarcastic. There are definitely better things to do than sift through 164 pages of dense academia on WoW).


OP updated with my summary. Discuss!

1 Like

Before I read through this, every time I see you mention anything about “the study,” this is all I think of:

But really, good on him for finding a way to turn his gaming habit into some schoolwork!

1 Like

Jesus, your TLDR is TLDR!!

I like jungs pic though, while this is probably a very scholarly report and all, I doubt it will be taken seriously. Gamers know that organizational management in game can relate to out of game and vice versa, but I doubt many RL organization leaders would even consider that point.

Seems like a good read though, very methodical way to look at what causes guilds to succeed/fail.