A short evaluation of the effect role playing games have on the formation of social networks

By: Joshua Swanson

I will look briefly at how the formation of social networks differs between those people who play role play games, and those who do not. I will examine in particular pen and paper role play games (RPGs) such as Dungeons and Dragons (DnD), and their later computer based descendants which include Might and Magic and World of Warcraft.

A role play game is any game where the players assume a role other from that which they occupy in normal life. It is usually marked by some sort of special and unrealistic characteristic, such as a capacity for magical spells or cybernetic implants, neither of which is regularly available in ordinary life. There are many varieties of role play game, but the most popular and well known are those that descend from Dungeons and Dragons, so these are the ones I will be concerned with here.

Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) is a game that almost everyone has heard of, although relatively few have played it, and belongs to a category of games known as pen and paper role play games because all that is required to play it is a pen and paper. It is the inspiration for such computer games as Might and Magic and Baldur’s Gate, as well as leading later to online play- the massively multiplayer online role play games (MMORPGs), which have grown increasingly popular and well known in recent years.

A small number of players, usually between four and seven, are required for pen and paper games and although the number can vary it generally needs to remain within these bounds for a reasonable game. Once a group has gathered to play, it is very uncommon for any new players to enter or even for old ones to leave, because the character progression and the necessity of close teamwork leads to a crystallisation of the group. It can be very disruptive to the group dynamics to change them abruptly mid game, so the current players tend to discourage new people entering in the middle of a campaign which can last several months. On the other hand, the cooperation required of the team can lead to strong bonds forming between them. This can make it very easy for a player to expand their network of social contacts to include those of their friends, however because many people play the game for escapism they may not wish to discuss their life outside the role they play. Thus the game can either encourage or inhibit the formation of additional social ties, depending on the character of the players. One thing that is certain, though, is that it tends to bring together like minded people in a setting they are comfortable with.

Single player computer games can be dismissed instantly, as there is no real difference between a single player RPG and any other single player game. Unlike pen and paper games, computer games are theoretically played in isolation. However, in actuality the large internet community means that they are never really alone. MMORPGs naturally involve huge numbers of people (hence the name Massively Multiplayer) and the renowned anonymity afforded by the internet makes it easy for people to start conversations. It is entirely usually for a person to have a hundred friends around the world, and not know what a single one of them looks like in real life. In addition to this, online RPGs support player run organisations known by various names, although usually as clans or guilds, which give a structured system for them to provide support and help for each other. The long term members of such a group usually know each other extremely well, and often organise times to meet online.

Occasionally, acquaintances formed online will extend to real life, usually because most players keep contact with their friends over instant messaging such as MSN messenger and ICQ, and can just as easily use these media to keep in touch with friends made in an online game. This enables an overlap of real life with their life online, and a large number of contacts can be built up this way. However it is quite unusual for one player to introduce two others to each other, so social networks formed this way rarely extend more then a single level.

So online games can provide a great aid to the formation of social networks, although these networks are usually quite distinct from those formed outside the internet. However, these two worlds will often overlap, as online and offline friends will be contacting the player with using the same email address or messaging account.

While social networking is relatively unaffected by pen and paper role play games, the online alternatives have quite a significant effect. They allow the building of a large network of social contacts, and although these usually do not carry over into real life it could be argued that more and more of so called 'real life' is actually occurring online. Hence it is not particularly odd that social networking and the formation of friendships is gradually shifting online, along with the rest of human activities. In conclusion, while pen and paper RPGs are little different then any other club or hobby, MMORPGs have a huge influence on the lives of their participants. They enable large virtual networks of contacts to form, and generate an entire online community with its own forms rituals and rules of conduct, really no different then any other society or social gathering- save appreciably larger!

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By Joshua Swanson, programmer, philosopher, and creator of the free MMORPG, Qrealm You can read more of my gaming articles here.
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