Lag is a killer. Yeah, I know it’s not the most compelling of public service announcements, but if you play games seriously, you must have felt the frustration of watching a screen full of intense action freeze for just long enough to get you fragged—usually by something you would’ve seen coming if your network hadn’t glitched.
What can you do about it?
You can get a fast, powerful PC, hook it up to a solid internet connection, and then… well, then you’re still at the mercy of sinister powers beyond your control. Fortunately, your quest to find the magic item that sets you free is short and the item itself is inexpensive.
Why Lag Happens in the First Place
First, let’s talk about why lag happens. I’m going to assume that the problem isn’t your PC or console, and that your internet speed is about the same as everyone else’s, i.e., an insulting fraction of the "up to" you were promised when you signed up for it.
If all that is true, then your problem could be found in some of the things your ISP (internet service provider) does to make life easier for itself at your expense.
How ISPs Handle Your Data
In order to transfer data across the internet, the data is actually broken up into packets and reassembled at the other end. But sometimes your ISP doesn’t treat all those packets equally.
ISPs agree to transport your data across their networks. But in practice, no ISP owns enough network to give you internet access. So, they share your data out amongst themselves. This is called "peering." They do it to balance out load, too, so at peak times your data might travel far further than you’d expect. And you can bet that if your packets are being sent around the houses, they’re going to show up late.
Additionally, on their own networks, ISPs look at what kind of data you’re uploading and downloading, and throttle (hold back) data that is particularly bandwidth-hungry. That’s gig streaming video, and it’s games. Packets can be allowed to drop, or they can be piled up and released all at once. Everyone who games online has seen both these things happen, usually at the worst possible time.
Bottom line? Your ISP does what it wants with those data packets.
Trouble is, some data is more sensitive to being split up and moved around than others. Games involve a lot of data and they’re very time sensitive; a fraction of a second can be the difference between victory and defeat.
What can you do about it?
If your laggy gameplay is down to your ISP playing shenanigans with you, there are a couple of ways you can tell. One is that your gameplay shows tell-tale signs. Suddenly stopping, then speeding up for a second or two so everything runs comically fast, before resuming normal speed? That’s queueing. Or if minute parts of gameplay are actually missing, that’s packets being dropped.
Another way you can tell is to do a speed test. While bandwidth matters, the most important factor is the responsiveness of the network, which is called latency. It’s the time it takes for data to go between your computer and the server.
Latency is measured in milliseconds (ms), while bandwidth is measured in megabits per second (Mbps). So you can be pulling down enough data per second and still have half a second where no data arrives.
That’s fine if you’re watching movies—it’ll be absorbed by the buffering process and you won’t even notice it because you’re downloading a static file.
But if you’re playing a game, the data you’re downloading is made up of other players’ actions; it’s only just been created so it can’t be buffered. You need low latency more than you need high bandwidth.
Ping isn’t exactly the same thing—it’s a tool for measuring latency. So when you do your speed test, look at your ping.
Good ping is under 100ms. Anything over 150ms means you’re almost certain to get lag.
Now that we’ve talked about how your ISP might be messing with your gameplay, is there anything you can do about it?
A VPN can help.
A VPN is one of the most effective tools there is to prevent your ISP from messing with your data. That includes your gameplay.
VPNs encrypt your data. Imagine data packets as physical envelopes, with a brief description of their contents written on the outside. Your ISP decides what to do with the packets, based on that description.
But VPNs put everything in a plain envelope, so your ISP has no way to tell whether a given data packet is part of your Overwatch battle or your Miyazaki marathon. It can’t treat certain packets prejudicially. That helps reduce the likelihood that your game data packets will be preferentially selected for queueing, packet drop, or being rerouted to longer journeys to save primetime for Suits viewers.
Can a VPN cut your ping time?
More importantly, VPNs can sometimes result in sharply reduced ping times. It’s not guaranteed, and you should try before you buy. But when it works, it works like this:
Your ISP pays for access to the global internet. It usually tries to avoid paying additional fees for expensive sections of the internet’s infrastructure, such as undersea cables, by using them less or by using them more slowly (consuming less bandwidth). Thus, your packets will get queued in the places your ISP can’t afford to speed them through. Even if your ISP isn’t throttling you, its business model is, in other words.
But where your ISP might be sending your data coach, a VPN that prides itself on being fast might be sending those same packets business class. Sometimes VPNs route data packets differently; other times, they just pay the extra to move data faster along the very same cables where your ISP’s data is limping along in the slow lane.
And when you’re using a VPN, it’s the VPN company, not your ISP, whose data policies apply. ISPs operate in a nearly competition-free environment. Even if you have access to more than one fast ISP, they’re essentially selling the same product at the same price, then calling it a competition. VPN services aren’t like that. There’s real competition.
So which VPN should you go for?
Most VPN services are relatively low-cost, and those that don’t have a free trial typically have 30-day money-back guarantees. So it makes sense to try a couple. Run speed tests with and without them to several servers, and see what your actual gameplay is like with and without them.
Different VPNs focus on different things. For instance, TOR+VPN services are about as secure as you can hope to get. Multiple layers of encryption, obfuscation, and data switching to points around the globe mean if you’re a political activist in a repressive regime, these are the tools for you.
But all that fortification comes at a price. You don’t put armor on a rally car. Super-secure VPNs are super slow.
There are some VPNs that were built explicitly for speed, so it makes sense to pick one from that list or one that has a reputation for being fast. Everyone’s mileage varies and while the same VPNs consistently top lists of the fastest in the game, how each one will work for you is down to a host of complex factors. You’re best off trying at least two before you decide for good.
Troubleshooting Your Gaming VPN
If you’re running a VPN and it's slower than you’d hoped, here are some options for getting the best out of it:
- Check server load. The FAQs of your chosen VPN will tell you how to see server load but most good VPNs just display it as a percentage next to the server location. If it’s above 70 percent, your speed might suffer.
- Check server location. If you’re using a server that’s a long way from both you and the servers of the game you’re using, that’s adding distance across cables and thus costing you time. Check for a closer server.
- Check protocol. This is an advanced fix but you don’t need to understand what a VPN protocol is to use it. Just find the switch in your chosen VPN and move from more secure to faster. In NordVPN, for instance, you’ll find this in Advanced Settings, and you’ll be able to switch from UDP (secure, mid speed) to TCP (less secure, faster).
- If you’re using a secondary service outside the game itself for communications, try switching to a p2p optimized server.