There’s a good chance you run into a lot of ads for VPN (virtual private network) services while visiting websites or listening to podcasts. They are everywhere these days thanks, in part, to a renewed focus on privacy and security.
VPNs have always appealed to gamers with promises of privacy protection and improved performance. Let’s take a look at whether those claims are true.
What a VPN Does
There are essentially two types of VPNs you’ll run into. The first is a corporate VPN that you get through your employer. These VPNs are encrypted tunnels that allow you to connect to your company’s network for accessing private resources such as documents or the back end of a website.
The second type is a consumer VPN, which is what all those ads are for. This kind of VPN is also an encrypted tunnel, but this time, it securely connects to a server and then out to the open internet. To the rest of the world, it appears as if the VPN server is your PC. Thus, your true location is protected.
VPNs like this are great if you want to watch a show on Netflix that’s only available in the U.S. while you’re in Europe. A VPN is also useful if you’re on a public Wi-Fi network at a coffee shop or airport and want to secure your connection, preventing the Wi-Fi network operator from snooping on your traffic.
Gaming, however, is another matter.
Can a VPN Protect You From DDoS Attacks?
The number one reason that gamers, or those advising gamers, suggest using a VPN is for protection. There are some games that use peer-to-peer technology to help with networking on multiplayer games. When that’s the case, it’s sometimes possible to discover an opponent’s IP (Internet Protocol) address.
An IP address is like a street address, but for computers and routers on the internet. If you know the IP address of another device, you can try to connect to it. Bad actors use this information to carry out distributed denial-of-service attacks, where they flood an IP address with so much internet traffic that the connection goes offline. It’s easy to rent times on botnets to carry out DDoS attacks, which makes the threat of a DDoS attack very real (as long as you have a target IP address).
Withstanding DDoS attacks is an everyday experience for major internet companies like Amazon and Google as well as servers run by gaming companies and a number of VPN services. It is not, however, something that a home internet connection can easily withstand—thus the need for a VPN. Should you become the target of a DDoS attack while connected to a VPN, you may still get knocked offline, but getting back online wouldn’t be an issue since your actual IP wasn’t affected.
Looking around the internet, it’s easy to see a lot of fear about getting hit with a DDoS attack while gaming. Check the forums of any game that includes a multiplayer online component, and you’ll see worries about DDoS, including games like CSGo, Overwatch, Call of Duty, Destiny 2, and League of Legends.
Some of these fears are legitimate, and (hopefully) game makers will do everything they can to prevent DDoS attacks, as Bungie did for Destiny 2 in early 2020. For most games, however, the bigger fear is that someone will hit the company servers and try to knock the game offline that way, as happened to World of Warcraft in late 2019. If the game servers are attacked, then a VPN will do absolutely nothing to make the game more playable, since the game’s servers, not your internet connection, were targeted by the DDoS attack.
Another way you can get hit with a DDoS attack isn’t through the game itself, but everything around it. If someone tries to start a chat with you, for example, that may be enough to get your IP on some platforms. The player may also try to lure you to a website or chat room that they control to find your IP address. These kinds of attacks aren’t common. But in general, if you get an unsolicited chat request before or just after a game, don’t take the bait.
You shouldn’t really need a VPN to withstand DDoS attacks while gaming these days, but there may be exceptions. If you believe you’ve been targeted by a DDoS attack while gaming, check to see if others have had similar experiences and what you were doing on your machine leading up to that attack. Read the game developer’s forums and support pages to see if this is an issue. If it turns out to be the real deal, consider a VPN.
Can a VPN Improve Gaming Performance?
Another reason gamers like the idea of a VPN is to provide better performance if they use a VPN server that’s closer to the game’s servers. But this almost never works out, since VPNs don’t provide the same bandwidth speeds that a bare internet connection does. That means you will almost always have increased latency and worse network performance when connecting through a VPN—unless there are other circumstances a VPN improves. (However, with a speedy VPN, the slowdown may be very small.)
For example, if your internet service provider were throttling gaming connections but not VPNs, a VPN might boost your performance. If you were connecting through a public Wi-Fi network that blocked gaming connections but allowed VPN connections, you could use a VPN to tunnel through that limitation and connect to the game server.
One other potential use case is the idea that you want to play in a different region, such as Europe or Asia. If this is about playing with friends, check to make sure that the game won’t automatically connect you regardless of region. For those games that do region lock, make sure that jumping around regions with a VPN won’t get you kicked off the game.
Finally, one last concern could be bypassing IP filters at a university or corporate firewall. Trying to bypass a company firewall to play a game is a terrible, terrible idea that could cost you your job. For students, a better option would be to talk to the campus IT department. Sometimes they aren’t trying to block gaming, but traffic that looks similar, and they may help figure out your connection issues.
So, Do You Need a VPN for Gaming?
VPN services are fantastic tools for getting access to overseas streaming services or securing your connection on open Wi-Fi. But do you need one for gaming? Probably not.
You definitely don’t need it for blanket protection or performance issues for all online games, but there are some situations where it might come in handy.
Before spending money on a VPN subscription, do some research to see if the game you play uses peer-to-peer networking or if the chat platforms you use are a concern, and then see what the developers are doing to prevent DDoS attacks. Consider whether you might need one to bypass throttling or limitations on the networks you use.
But most of all, figure out if you have a specific problem that a VPN for gaming will help you with.