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.
Here, I define a role play game as any game where the primary purpose is for the players to act out the role of someone else, as opposed to other games with more specific objects such as to capture the opponents king. Role play games have existed in various forms for centuries; in fact one could even describe a theatre play as a form of role play game. However, the games I am concerned with here are those that descend from Dungeons and Dragons.
Dungeons and Dragons belongs to a category of games known as pen and paper role playing, because nothing is required to play them save a pen and some paper. A hallmark of all these role play games is the simplicity of the requirements, which one might say was carried on into the computer generation through requiring only the game to play, except that this is not the norm for games now. These pen and paper games have inspired large numbers of computer games, including Might and Magic and World of Warcraft, enough to be considered the founders of a genre which has become increasingly popular.
Pen and paper games generally require a fairly static group of players, as the character progression system does not encourage new players to join the group. In addition to this, it tends to foster a close sense of teamwork, as it pen and paper role play games are not competitive. Together, these two aspects make it difficult for anyone new to join, and can lead to solidification and potentially even an unnecessary rigidity, nether of which is particularly forgiving of expansion. On the other hand, it is possible for new players to join, and some groups are extremely fluid with a high turnover of players. In either case the potential for social networking is low. As well, many people play it for escapism, and prefer not to leave their life at the door as it were. Still, this is not very different then any other social club and in truth it has very little effect on the networking possibilities available to the players.
Computer games are an entirely different matter. Single player games such as Might and Magic may e dismissed out of hand, as they are no different then any other games and the impact of games as a whole is not under discussion. However, MMORPGs are a completely different matter. There are many forms of MMORPG, but without exception they allow or, more usually, encourage players to form player-run organisations. Usually called clans, or sometimes guilds, these organisations allow players to band together to aid each other and to compete with the other groups. Most of the players of these games use them as a form of escapism, fleeing from the drudgery of normal life to a place where their efforts are rewarded. In RPGs, everything you take visibly contributes to your growth as a player, and your status can instantly be seen by the items you use and your skills in combat. Once in the game, though, it is highly interactive and the anonymity provided by the internet encourages interaction on an equal level. It is easy to form friends, although such friendships are extremely fluid and liable to shift without warning. Clan members, however, usually form close bonds of mutual support, willingly lending a hand to another member or leaping to their defence.
Membership in a clan will sometimes extend into real life, but usually not as because of the anonymity of the internet it is impossible to know if someone you meet is a fellow player, much less in your clan, and in any case clans will encompass players from across the world. From a networking aspect, it is rare for one player to be introduced to another because there is usually no reason to although large numbers of players will be contacted in the course of normal interactions. So networks built will typically be very large, but extend to only a single level, and not apply to life outside the game.
So the formation of social networks is greatly aided by playing online role play games, but this network is separate and distinct from the one occupied in real life, outside of the game. It is considered bad form to publish contact details or webpage addresses online, but friendships are often maintained through instant messaging. As instant messaging is also often used to maintain real life social links, this can lead to an overlap between the online and offline networks.
While pen and paper role play games have really had no effect on social networking, massively multiplayer online role play games have. MMORPGs allow people to come into contact with far more people of similar interests then they would in real life, and leads to building a large network of contacts online although few of these carry over into real life. As people gradually shift more and more of their operations over to the internet, it is really only natural that their social life should shift with it, and so it should perhaps not be surprising that so many contacts are formed in online games. So in conclusion, MMORPGS greatly stimulate the growth of social networks on the internet, although they have little impact on real life. Pen and paper RPGs also have little to no impact on ordinary life save perhaps to extend the effects of an otherwise normal social gathering.