A virtual private network, or VPN, can be a powerful tool for securing your internet connection. But even the best VPNs can interfere with your connectivity, sometimes to the point where your favorite PC game becomes laggy or even unplayable. Some games may even block you from using a VPN altogether. While we can’t advise you on every problem that may arise from using a VPN while gaming, we can break down the issues and offer some solutions that will keep you in the game without losing control of your data.
But why would gamers want a VPN in the first place? Privacy and security are surely issues, but VPNs can benefit gamers, specifically. For instance, you can potentially spoof your location and access servers in other countries. VPNs may also make it more difficult for rivals to use distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks to knock players offline. Note that we haven’t evaluated the efficacy of VPNs protecting against DDoS attacks.
What Is a VPN?
When you switch on a VPN, it sends all your data through an encrypted tunnel to a remote server operated by the VPN company. Anyone on the same network as you, even the person who owns the network, won’t be able to see your activity. Neither will your ISP, which is great because they’re now allowed to sell your anonymized browsing data.
From the VPN server, your data exits onto the public internet. Because your data appears to emanate from the VPN server and not your computer, anyone watching your traffic on the web will see the IP address of the VPN server instead of your computer’s IP address. If you select a VPN server outside your country, it will appear as if you are browsing the web from wherever the VPN server resides.
There’s Always a Weak Point
There is no magic weapon in the world of security that will make you truly safe (or truly anonymous). If people want to target you specifically—and are willing to spend the time and money to do it—it’s likely they will eventually succeed. But a VPN makes it that much harder, and it can keep your data and personal information from being swept up in mass surveillance. At the very least, you won’t be the proverbial low-hanging fruit; the average attacker is more likely to go after an easier target.
While some VPN services claim they will defend against malware and phishing sites, we don’t believe that any of them provide the same level of protection as standalone antivirus software. And no VPN, no matter how powerful, can be as useful as a password manager at protecting your online accounts. Lastly, enabling two-factor authentication on all your accounts (especially gaming services such as Battle.net and Steam) is the best way to prevent account takeovers. Security, just like dressing for winter, is best done in layers.
Lastly, a VPN doesn’t offer the same level of anonymization as the free Tor anonymization network. Meaning that it’s easier (but still very difficult) to determine your true IP address and location when you’re using a VPN than when you’re using Tor. On the other hand, VPNs have a far smaller impact on your internet speeds than Tor.
But What About My Sick Frags?
The biggest concern people usually have with VPNs is that they can negatively impact their internet speeds. It makes sense, because routing web traffic through a VPN server adds extra physical distance and machines between computers and content out on the web—even for playing a video game.
When we test VPNs, we try to get a sense of that impact by looking at the difference between when the VPN is active and when it is not. We perform a series of speed tests using the Ookla speed test tool and then calculate the percent change. You can get all the nitty-gritty details in our article on how we test VPNs.
(Editors’ Note: Speedtest by Ookla is owned by Ziff Davis, the publisher of PCMag.)
You can read more about our VPN speed testing in our fastest VPN feature. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has greatly limited our access to the PCMag Labs. We’ve adapted by moving to a rolling testing model, which we will update with more products throughout 2021. The best results for each category are in red and italicized. You can see the latest results in the chart below.
Latency is likely a bigger deal for playing video games than other activities. With fighting games, in particular, split seconds can make the difference between victory and defeat. A good rule of thumb is that the further the VPN server is from you, the greater the latency. A VPN with lots of servers and locations may help you find a server that’s nearby. Given the importance of latency, the chart at the top of this story shows the VPNs that had better latency results than the median score. We’ve also arranged them by their latency results in descending order.
Keep in mind that this is a snapshot of performance for a particular place and time, and not the final word in network performance. You will certainly see different results depending on where you live, when you connect, what your network looks like, and which VPN server you use. Our results are primarily for comparison.
Very little in life is free, but some VPNs are free. Most reputable free VPN services have some kind of data restriction, although a few do not. So far, we think that ProtonVPN has the best free subscription offering.
But even the paid subscriptions to a VPN service don’t need to break the bank. The average cost for a VPN subscription is around $9.96 per month, or $72.33 per year. You can also usually save money if you purchase a longer-term subscription plan, but definitely try out the service on a short-term basis first to make sure it works for you.
Most VPN services let you secure up to five devices simultaneously. If you’re looking at a service that offers fewer devices per subscription, it better offer something pretty impressive to balance that out. Keep in mind you’ll want one subscription to cover all of your devices.
Of course, not all devices can run a VPN client on their own. Smart home appliances certainly can’t, nor can many handheld or TV-connected game systems. For these devices, you can configure a router to give them VPN protection. This means all the traffic from all the devices connected to the router (generally every connected device in your home) is protected by the VPN. While companies have worked to make this process more streamlined, it is definitely more in the realm of a DIY project and probably more of a headache for the average person.
There are a few other things to consider when you’re shopping for a VPN subscription. The best services use a modern and secure VPN protocol to secure your connection. We prefer OpenVPN and WireGuard, because both have been examined by the open-source community for potential faults. It’s also a good idea to see how many servers and server locations a VPN company offers. More servers and server locations can mean better performance and more flexibility.
Can You Trust Your VPN?
When reviewing VPN services, we contact VPN companies to confirm basic information about their operation, policies, and how they respond to law enforcement. If you’re curious about a particular VPN’s privacy issues, be sure to look up its review here on PCMag.
If any impact on your latency, download, or upload speeds is simply too much for your gaming experience, there are other options. TunnelBear and PureVPN, among others, include a split-tunneling feature. This means you can decide which applications send their data through the VPN’s tunnel and which send data outside the tunnel as normal. If, for example, you want to secure all your web traffic, but your game of choice can’t take the strain of a VPN, you can simply omit its traffic with split-tunneling.
The downside is that this approach will not secure all of your information. You need to decide which information you’re comfortable transmitting without a VPN’s added protection and what you want encrypted. Having to make that choice is not ideal, but it is better than having no choice at all.
Golden Frog is unique among VPN companies for offering Outfox, a VPN service that’s designed with gaming in mind. We haven’t yet tested this service, but Golden Frog has a good reputation.
A New Challenger Appears
Speed isn’t the only issue for players. Some web services get confused or outright block VPN traffic. For example, Netflix blocks VPNs in order to enforce distribution deals that make different videos available in different countries.
Anecdotally, we can say that some mobile games will not function properly if you’re using a VPN. This is likely because of matchmaking systems that use your IP address to pair you up with particular opponents or place you on a particular server. It could also be because of anti-cheating or anti-piracy measures. Regardless of the reason, the result is the same: using a VPN sometimes means that your game just won’t work.
If you encounter this particular problem, you might consider purchasing a static IP address or a personal VPN server from a VPN company. These are generally offered as add-ons to a standard VPN subscription, with prices varying by company and where the IP address or server is located. We haven’t tested either option for compatibility with games or Netflix, so proceed at your own risk. You might consider a short-term subscription for this kind of testing.
The Most Dangerous Game
VPNs are powerful privacy and security tools, which can protect your online activities from spies, advertisers, and everyone else, without breaking the bank or strangling your internet connection. There are drawbacks, however, and the particular requirements of video games mean that a slow, inflexible VPN simply won’t do.
That said, a VPN only makes a difference if you actually use it, and use it regularly. That’s why it’s important to try out several different vendors until you settle on one that fits your life best.