PunkBuster is an anti-cheat program installed by some PC games. It includes two processes—PnkBstrA.exe and PnkBstrB.exe—that run in the background on your computer. PunkBuster monitors your system for evidence of cheating in online games.

What Is PunkBuster?

PunkBuster, developed by Even Balance, Inc., has a long history. It was created in 2000, and was first integrated into 2001’s Return to Castle Wolfenstein. It’s currently available for Mac and Linux as well as Windows, so even Mac or Linux gamers may notice PunkBuster running in the background. PunkBuster is installed automatically when you install a game that uses it.

This software runs in the background on your PC. If you’re playing an online multiplayer game that uses PunkBuster, and you’re connected to a PunkBuster-secured server, it scans your PC’s memory for any evidence of known “cheat” or “hack” programs. PunkBuster has an automatic update feature that downloads a database of new “definitions” of known cheat programs.

In other words, it works a lot like an antivirus program, except it scans your PC for cheat programs instead of malware. Specifically, PunkBuster is looking for utilities like “aimbots” that aim for you in shooter games, “map hacks” that show you the full map in online games, tools that let you see through walls, and anything else that gives you an unfair advantage by breaking the rules of a multiplayer game. It doesn’t care if you cheat in single-player games.

PunkBuster doesn’t just look at the processes running on your PC—it can also check to see if you’ve modified game files. It’s designed to bust those cheating “punks.” After all, it’s not fun to be stomped in an online game by someone who’s cheating.

When Is PunkBuster Active?

The anti-cheat features are only activated while you’re playing a PunkBuster-enabled game on a PunkBuster-enabled server. Games must be specifically designed to support PunkBuster, and it’s up to each game server’s operator to choose whether PunkBuster is required or not. But, while you’re connected to a server that requires PunkBuster, it will monitor your PC in the background to ensure you’re not cheating.

While you’re connected to the server, the server administrator has a variety of tools they can use to check on your system, including taking screenshots of your game and viewing information about your key bindings.

If PunkBuster notices anything suspicious, the PunkBuster-enabled servers can ban you. You will sometimes receive a warning, but you could also be permanently banned based on the CD key of the game you’re playing or the hardware details of the PC you’re playing it on. These permanent bans could prevent you from playing any PunkBuster-enabled games on any PunkBuster-enabled servers on that PC.

Is PunkBuster Spying on Me?

If PunkBuster is installed, it’s always running in the background on your PC. That’s why you’ll see the PnkBstrA.exe process in the Task Manager and the PnkBstrA service in the Services application.

However, PunkBuster isn’t actually doing anything most of the time. It only kicks in when you’re playing an online game that integrates with PunkBuster and you’re playing on a PunkBuster-enabled server. If you aren’t, PunkBuster won’t do anything more than download definition updates.

Which Games Use It?

PunkBuster isn’t as common as it used to be. Modern games have largely moved on to other anti-cheat tools, such as the Valve Anti-Cheat System (VAC) built into Steam. Blizzard games like Overwatch have a built-in anti-cheating feature, too. However, if you’ve installed a few games on your PC, there’s a good chance you have PunkBuster running in the background anyway.

The last big game to integrate PunkBuster was Battlefield Hardline, released in 2015, but it’s also integrated into many older Battlefield games. PunkBuster is also part of older Call of Duty games like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, as well as games like Far Cry 3 and Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag.

However, PunkBuster hasn’t been integrated into a new online game since 2015. If you’re playing an online multiplayer game released in the last few years, it doesn’t require PunkBuster.

Can I Uninstall PunkBuster?

You probably don’t actively play a multiplayer game that requires the PunkBuster anti-cheat software, so you can uninstall it if you want.

To do so, head to Control Panel > Uninstall a Program. Select “PunkBuster Services” in the list of installed software, and then click the “Uninstall/Change” button.

If you do need PunkBuster for some reason, you’ll see a PunkBuster-related error message when trying to connect to an online multiplayer server in a game. You can always head to the official PunkBuster download page to download and install it on your system in the future.

You’ll be able to connect to PunkBuster-enabled servers once again after you’ve installed it.

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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