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Using computer networks to play games online

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Teenager (15 years) sitting in chair shot from behind in studio playing video game on flat screen TV New York USA.
Schedivy Pictures Inc. / Digital Vision / Getty Images
One of the most enjoyable things you can do with a computer network is play connected games with friends and family. To use so-called LAN games and online games, you may need to upgrade your local network and Internet setup. You should also be prepared to troubleshoot certain types of technical issues commonly associated with local network and online games.

Types of Local Network and Online Games

Single player PC games only run on one personal computer, but some (not all) multi-player games also function across a network. Check the game's packaging or documentation to determine the nature of its support:
  • PC games that list "LAN" or "local network" support allow sharing between two or more computers across home network connections (each computer must run its own copy of the game)
  • PC games that list "Internet" or "online multiplayer" support allow you to play live across a high-speed Internet connection

Game consoles like Microsoft Xbox, Nintendo Wii, and Sony PlayStation offer both local-based and Internet-based play options for games that support them. Each console manufacturer maintains its own, separate Internet service for online games. For example, Microsoft consoles utilize its System Link feature for local play and the Xbox Live service for Internet-based play. The Sony Playstation Network likewise enable Internet gaming between PS3 consoles. Regarding game consoles,

  • you can share live sessions with those who own the same type of console and a copy of the same game
  • you cannot share live sessions between a console and a PC
  • you cannot share live sessions between two different types of consoles.
See also - PCs vs Consoles for Online Gaming (internetgames.about.com)

Setting up Your Network for Online Games

PC multi-player games typically work across any wired or wireless home network. Some experienced gamers may prefer to use wired Ethernet connections for local network gaming, however, due to the performance advantages Ethernet can offer (especially for high end games). Besides reliable network connections, PC games also benefit from running on systems with fast processors.

All modern game consoles also contain built-in Ethernet support for connecting to each other and to the Internet. With a console you can also use wireless game adapters that convert its Ethernet connector to a Wi-Fi link suitable for connecting to wireless home routers.

Both PC and console games benefit from having a fast Internet connection when used online:

  • online games require low latency links; you generally cannot play online games over satellite Internet connections, for example, due to the high latencies associated with that kind of service
  • online games also require a moderate amount of Internet bandwidth: Any type of service except dialup Internet should provide sufficient bandwidth for individual game sessions, but if multiple people in the household intend to play online games simultaneously, you may need to upgrade your Internet connection bandwidth

Troubleshoot Network Games

Be prepared to encounter some technical glitches when setting up and playing online games.

1. Cannot connect to other players locally - PC games utilize a variety of port numbers to establish LAN connections. You may need to modify or temporarily disable network firewalls running on the PCs to unblock these connections. Additionally, check for loose cables, failed routers, and other home network problems not specific to games.

2. Cannot sign into the Internet gaming service - Online gaming services often require setting up an Internet subscription and sometimes paying a fee. Carefully follow the directions for setting up your online account and contact their technical support if necessary. Some routers are incompatible with online gaming services; you may need to adjust the router's configuration or replace it with a different model. Finally, if suddenly or occasionally you are unable to connect to the service provider, the service itself could be at fault rather than any problem with your network and Internet setup.

3. Game crashes - Sometimes while playing a network game, the screen will freeze and the PC or console will stop responding to controls. Reasons for this include

  • overheating of the PC or console - move the system to a better ventilated location
  • PC driver problems - ensure both graphics and audio device drivers for the PC are up to date, and try workarounds such as disabling sound or turning off advanced graphics options in the game settings
  • game glitches - the game itself may suffer from technical issues ("bugs") - look on the game developer's Web site for official game patches to install, or search for unofficial workarounds published by other players online

4. Lag while playing - The term lag refers to sluggish response in game controls due to network issues. When lagging, your view of the game action falls behind that of other players, and the game may also occasionally freeze for short periods. Several different factors can contribute to this frustrating problem including

  • high latency of your Internet connection - consider changing service providers
  • excessive network traffic being generated by other on the home network (or on the Internet) - upgrade home network and/or Internet links to higher bandwidth
  • slow PC - for PC gaming, consider upgrading components of your system including processors and memory (RAM) to match the recommended configurations for games you play
  • slow game servers - for both PC and console gaming, the other systems beside yours being used to share or host games may be suffering from performance problems - these are generally outside your control
  • unscrupulous players on the Internet using lag switches - avoid playing with these people
To determine whether your game is suffering from lag, use tools like ping on the PC or look for similar graphical indicators provided on game consoles.

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