Gaius In Cyberspace (III): Digital Feudalism

Alec Thompson

Once More Down the Rabbit Hole

It’s time to conclude this series. In the first article I promised you a legal system beyond physical understanding. The previous article gave you a few examples of legal systems, but they were incomplete, hopelessly fragmented guidelines. It’s time to go one level deeper. We will now explore a digital legal system which ran for several years, complete with legislature, executive, attorneys, juries and judiciary. Here’s the law it produced.

Level 3: When Shall I Log-In My Liege?

The Duchy of Wessex at first glance looks like any other guild of roleplaying gamers. However, in truth it is perhaps the only example in existence of a modern, functioning feudal system.1 There is a guy who crowned himself King (King Manus); nobleman who accrued favours; and a full class system down to the measly commoner. 2 The Duchy emerged from an MMORPG called ‘Darkfall Online’, 3 a real time, player combat focused (PvP) fantasy game. It grew unstoppably, eventually forming the largest guild in the game’s continent, governing at one time 5000 taxpayers,4 and produced a complex system of governance.

The system is too large to cover in detail, but, in brief, included a Church attached to the state; a Shire Court; Chancery; Treasury; trained clerks; Ducal Court; legislature (‘House of Lords’); and incredibly in-depth constitution (Carta Solis). 5 In addition, the Law code included the ‘common law’, updated with decisions taken under the Shire Court.6 What is brilliant about the Duchy is that this is all socially constructed – the game did not have a ‘collect tax’ function, ‘feudalism’ mechanic, or class-system element. These were all superimposed by the players in this guild through a combination of role-playing and cooperative gaming. The law they produce is also socially constructed and, despite looking outwardly like a physical legal system, quickly reveals some bizarre characteristics.

Murder Without Death

On the 18th march, 2014, Faeran Stonewall was brought to trial for the murder of Zakiyya Ajam. 7 The primary witness was Zakiyya himself. One slight problem with concocting a murder plot in a video game is that after beating the victim to a pulp, stealing his possessions, and sneaking away, the victim will respawn shortly after. In ‘The Assize of Faeran Stonewall’ Zak testified against Faeran and provide screenshots of the comments she made in the global chat after killing him.8 As a result of this casual immortality, the law of homicide is distorted beyond recognition to a modern lawyer.

‘Aggravated battery’ is considered to be type of killing offence,9 a classification which seems to conflate ‘causing injury’ with ‘killing’. But if we think about it more deeply, can a killing-offence without death even be called ‘killing’? In a connected manner, battery offence punishments are comically lenient. Throwing mana missiles, assaults with weapons, or just generally being ‘annoying’ in other ways, are subject to a small fine (50 gold coins).10 Then again, in a world where health ‘regens’ automatically, is any injury that serious? Without physical impairment, what even is ‘injury’? Without death or injury, ‘Murder’ and offences against the person must be referring to something else. With a bit of investigation, the hint of a trend can be detected. Crimes seem to be less focused on protecting ‘the body’, with its social and emotional significance, and instead are drawn to the ‘wrong’ of causing inconvenience. Resetting a character to their starting position, stealing their items, causing noise and being disruptive11 – all of these relate to detracting from a full experience of game. Perhaps in a video game the ultimate basic good is not life but fun. If so, the quintessential crime is not killing, which is a mere inconvenience, but the result of the killing: hindering a player’s enjoyment of the game.

Crime and Punishment Without Pain

The functional immortality of the player raises other problems. How do you punish someone who is both free from death and pain?  The Duchy ingeniously devised a series of alternative penalties to keep the (digital) streets safe.12 Minor offences like hitting someone with a club or burning them with fire would be punished with a small fine and a mark against the players name. 13 If you were naughtier, you might be subject to forced labour (harvesting wheat) or made to run around a fixed perimeter for a period.14 Maybe those punishments are not enough – you need to be taught a real lesson. In that case, you you’d be put in digital stocks before the community of Wessex. 15 In the ‘stocks’ you’d be taunted by other players, who would roleplay throwing tomatoes at you and hurling general insults. One line the crowd seemed unwilling to cross, however, was roleplaying on behalf of the accused (ie ‘the accused weeps pitifully as he pisses his pants’ etc).16 Roleplaying on behalf of another’s character would appear to be against roleplaying conventions, in fact it seems significantly more intrusive than mere public shaming. This raises an interesting question of the ‘digital body’, a concept considered further below. If even humiliation doesn’t straighten you out, and you’ve been a very bad boy, the ultimate punishment is necessary: execution… and then exile from the Duchy of Wessex. 17 Again, we see in these punishments no infliction of pain, but attacks on other, different pressure points of the accused: their reputation, identity, inclusion in the community, and, ultimately, enjoyment of the game.  

The substantive law itself is also fairly warped. Given the triviality of death, all kinds of practices are allowed which appear out of place even in feudal England. The provision for manslaughter, for example, reads: ‘Bringing someone to death through a random attack without discussion first is a fine punishable by 500 gold.” 18 Provided the players have a responsible discussion, ‘killing and looting’ (in private) is perfectly legal. Or, in a familiar twist, 19 one judgement showcases the slow rebirth of the tort of negligence in the form of ‘Guilty of Intentional property damage without malicious intent’. 20 Other strange rules emerge from the law of self-defence. Given magic is a game mechanic, what is ‘reasonable’ is more open to interpretation. In Assize of Faeran, Fae (who is on trial for beating a naked player to death) argues “He looked naked but you can never underestimate those naked mages if he was one”. 21 Or, in response to Fae’s accusation that the victim didn’t mark his allegiance properly, Zak’s amazing defence that ‘I’ve been away from the game for several months.’ 22 What does this mean in substance? The murdered man is trying to argue that there is a ‘newbie’ defence. In legal terms, what is a ‘newbie’? They’re not equivalent to children, possessing moral capacity, nor are they similar to a madman, someone in a trance, or person acting involuntarily – they are fully conscious and cognisant. The only analogy which is close is someone who woke up from a coma and forgot all the laws of physics, including gravity and how to move their limbs. Do they deserve a defence for some otherwise illegal actions? ‘Your honour, I only threw that fireball because I didn’t know what the ‘S’ key did’. Even then the analogy doesn’t quite hold; in the context of role-playing a legal system the defence of ‘newbie’ acts like breaking the fourth wall. 23 Yet clearly the ‘newbie defence’ cannot be ignored as ‘breaking character’: you want to encourage new players to stay in the game and can’t simply penalise them because ‘the character’ ought to have known better. There is a genuine legal tension between protecting players from newbies and ensuring a healthy player base. Going meta, the fact it involves the ‘real’ player strikes deeper – it makes us question who the legal person actually being governed is.

Life Without a Body

Following on from the strange legal rules above, possibly the most mind-bending offence is ‘stealing an account’. Given a player can have multiple accounts, it was inevitable the difficult question of what an ‘account’ is would arise. In the case, it was treated as theft, alongside stealing other (digital) property. 24 But is it equivalent? Players often invest significant time and self-esteem in their online personas – would the case have been the same had the thief used the account to debase the character? For example, making the character engage in explicit, perverted sexual acts, or ruining their character and reputation in the public forum. Deeper conundrums are then raised. What do we do about the criminal who only commits crimes on his ‘evil account’, otherwise engaging in public discourse with his upstanding account? How do we deal with, even detect, this 21st century Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? Connected to this is the fundamental question of who the ‘player’ is. Perhaps each separate account is a ‘legal person’, leading to each human player taking the role of a mini-nation state’s president. Or maybe we should treat each player as a legal person, a consciousness with many individual ‘limbs’ in the form of accounts? This would be something unlike anything in the real world – a mind capable of existing in multiple places at once, with many bodies acting in concert. Going further, when the Duchy began spreading to other games,25 would this have meant the player also extended his limbs across the different worlds? How do we adjust punishment from game to game when the laws of nature and moral conventions change? 26 Further, punishment, and catharsis, could be rendered impossible if, after exiling one account, the victim is met with the perpetrator in a different body the next day. These are just a handful of the insane questions flowing from a video game legal system. As time progressed, these deep issues could have grown, pulling apart useless modern concepts like ‘assault’, ‘execution’, and ‘body’, and in their place a flowering of otherworldly ideas.

The 21st Century Legal System  

The Golden Age of the Duchy of Wessex came the closest of any community to inventing the ‘digital legal system’. Indeed, because the ‘metabolism’ of the world was faster, with no sleeping, faster production of resources, and activity concentrated on interaction with other players, it is not inconceivable law could have developed at a significantly faster rate than the real world.27 Unfortunately, the Duchy in Darkfall Online was destroyed by the video-game equivalents of barbarians (other guilds motivated by trolling) before its legal system could really take off. 28 Although the Duchy still exists with active and dedicated members, the total membership is a fraction of what it used to be.29 Yet the remains of its caselaw show the seeds of something incredible. The familiar legal labels were being distorted: the ‘cause’ behind actions was shifting from pain and death to inconvenience, boredom, and identity. New defences and states of being, in the form of the ‘newbie’, were being tested. More radically, a new legal entity, the multi-account consciousness, was forming. Had it lived a little longer, it is clear something unbelievable would have crawled out of the ‘Shire court’, a legal concept impossible, inconceivable in real-space.

I hope this fulfils my promise of showing you a truly virtual legal system, if only the barest glimpse through the wreckage of an extinct kingdom. 30 It was a fun journey, I never realised how zany, unexpected, and creative law could be – I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!

If you have any more questions about virtual legal systems, feel free to email me at


1. For more detail, see the Duchy of Wessex Forum

2. See the 'Law Code of Hyperion and Wessex’ (Hereafter ‘Law Code’)


4. Interview with King Manus

5. Law Code, ‘The Common Law of the Kingdom of Hyperion

6. Law Code, ‘Common Law Decisions or Updates’

7 Call to Assize: Faeran Stonewall. See link:

8. Ibid, ff 2

9. Ibid, pg 10 [94]

10. Law Code, ‘The Common Law of the Kingdom of Hyperion’, Criminal Law No 1 ‘RANDOM ATTACKS’

11. Law Code, ‘The Common Law of the Kingdom of Hyperion’ Criminal Law No 3 ‘NOISE’

12. See Law Code, ‘The Common Law of the Kingdom of Hyperion’ in general; also see

13. eg the penalties in Law Code, ‘The Common Law of the Kingdom of Hyperion’, Criminal Law No 1 ‘RANDOM ATTACKS’



16. See, ‘A Rape in Cyberspace’ for a seminal article on the topic.

17. Law Code, ‘The Common Law of the Kingdom of Hyperion’, Criminal Law No 4 ‘MURDER’

18. Law Code ‘The Common Law of the Kingdom of Hyperion’, Criminal Law No 5 ‘MANSLAUGHTER’

19. See D.J. Ibbetson (2001) ‘A Historical Introduction to the Law of Obligations’ (OUP) Part 3 Chapter 9.

20. Call to Assize:  Rhodri Taliesin Where the jury invented three new offences.

21. Call to Assize Faeran Stonewall, supra [no7]

22. Ibid, ff 7

23. Call to Assize: Rhodri Taliesin, supra [no20], where the players discuss whether one player having cancer IRL was a relevant defence.

24. Call to Assize: Dairthos the Seaman!

25. Call to Assize: Rhodri Taliesin, supra [no20] is a case from a different game (Mortal Online) and involves discussion of how moral conventions and punishment will differ from game to game. Additionally, it involves a fascinating discussion of the strength of the ‘self-informing jury’ in this special case.

26. Ibid; in later interviews with King Manus it appears the Duchy used IP address trackers to work out who the player was behind the digital avatar. Today, VPN technology makes this an unworkable solution.  

27. All the law here was produced within the space of around 7 years

28. The Duchy was defeated by the ‘Coalition of the Chilin’.

Their leader, Lord Gluttony, can be found here discussing his dislike of ‘gays’ and ‘virgins’

29. See Forum Participation on the Duchy of Wessex Forum; also, that only one case has arisen since 2014.

30. At least on Darkfall Online. The Duchy continues its journey in other games, such as ‘Life is Feudal’.

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