PCMag teamed up with IGN to run a survey on VPN usage while PC gaming. From April 14 to 22, we asked 770 readers of IGN and PCMag to tell us how and why they’re using VPNs (virtual private networks)—that all-important software that helps keep your online activity private—while playing games on PC. But some of their answers revealed that a number of gamers (and probably the rest of us) might have a fundamental misunderstanding of the kind of protection a VPN provides.
First, most respondents—78.6 percent—said they were not using a VPN while gaming. Of those who do, 58 percent said the reason is to “protect my privacy,” which is all well and good.
Several respondents clarified that they run a VPN while gaming but aren’t using it for gaming: Some just leave their VPNs on or forget to turn them off, but others have isolated their games out of the VPN. That’s possible when your VPN supports split-tunneling. According to Max Eddy, PCMag’s senior security analyst and VPN guru, split-tunneling “marks which apps send data through the VPN connection and which apps communicate in the clear.” And that’s totally fine: According to Eddy, most gamers don’t really need to use VPNs specifically for gaming.
This has to do with the way most online games are structured. A majority of the respondents, for example, stick with RPG/MMORPG games such as Skyrim or World of Warcraft, which facilitate multiuser play over their own online services. The privacy of the connection is essentially baked in. Using a VPN with a game like that is a hindrance, adding overhead to the connection. Issues with speed, performance, and lag in such cases are why many PC gamers eschew a VPN entirely; our colleagues at IGN will dive into that even more.
Issues with speed, performance, and lag in such cases are why many PC gamers eschew a VPN entirely.
Those PC gamers who do keep VPNs on while they play should check our review roundup, “The Best VPNs for Gaming.” We test latency as well as upload and download speed changes, so you can see which VPNs will impact your PC’s performance the least.
Ultimately, are PC gamers safer with a VPN than without? Undoubtedly, if they feel they can handle the performance hit. Of our respondents, 60.9 percent said speed was their top criteria in picking a VPN. Around 51.3 percent said security features, but the price was even more important than security: 58.6 percent cited cost. Most won’t pay over 40 bucks a year for a VPN subscription.
But are they safe from trolls? Not from the taunting. Nor can one expect total privacy, depending on how much you share. After all, a VPN’s not going to prevent players from social-engineering one another.
The VPN could potentially help fend off a distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attack. Eddy says, “There are all kinds of dirty tricks people use to win.” A VPN would help hide your public IP address and mitigate a DDOS. Nearly 12 percent of respondents singled that out as a reason to use a VPN while gaming.
Perhaps the best use of a VPN is hidden in that second chart, above—it lets gaming go international, allowing access to games in regions you can’t otherwise reach and playing with people in different countries. One respondent gave us more detail: “Can’t play [Rainbow Six] Siege/Overwatch with people in same household. Constant disconnects otherwise.” Another specific reason was given by a player on active duty and stationed in Asia who wanted to connect to servers at home.
Ultimately, it’s about comfort. The feeling one gets from a VPN security blanket—it makes 66.7 percent feel somewhat to very safe—is what really matters.
Methodology: 770 US respondents who read PCMag and/or IGN who game primarily on a PC were surveyed from April 14 to April 22, 2020, via Google Forms survey.