What do I need to play PC games?

It's not really that complicated

Chances are, you've seen places offering "gaming computers", heard people talk about their fancy "rigs", or simply had a lot of strange numbers thrown at you when you looked at computers at a store or in an advertisement. If you're not all that familiar with computers yourself, this can be overwhelming or even paralyzing.

But when you come right down to it, you just need a computer that has at least 4 GB of RAM and runs Microsoft Windows. Most of the computers that are available in stores today have a lot more RAM than this, and many even come with accessories like "game ready" graphics cards, so finding a good system is actually pretty easy.

That's the simple answer, anyway. There are other things to think about when choosing a computer, but those tend to be optional or are best left to personal preference.

The rest of this page goes into more detail about choosing a computer for gaming, though keep in mind that this is mainly my opinion based on my own experiences over the years.

A more detailed answer

Three things will determine how well a computer runs software: the amount of RAM available, the speed of its processor, and whether or not it has a dedicated graphics card.

The need for RAM is pretty simple. Computers use RAM to temporarily store data. The more RAM there is, the more they can "think" about at any given time. Thus, more RAM is usually a good thing, as it means larger and more detailed environments in games, as well as more complex games overall. 4 GB of RAM is the minimum for gaming, in my opinion. 8 GB or more is even better.

The processor is the part of the computer that executes instructions. In other words, it "processes" the code that makes software work. Processor speed is usually listed in either MegaHertz (MHz) or GigaHertz (GHz), with 1 GHz being equal to 1,000 MHz. Today, most software expects the processor to be capable of at least 2 GHz. Faster is definitely better.

Processors may also have multiple "cores". Each "core" acts like a separate processor, allowing several programs to run simultainiously. Some programs can also use multiple cores at a time to boost their own performance. That said, a higher speed is generally more important than the number of cores, as most programs will only use one of the available cores.

Lastly, graphic cards are special components that handle graphical processing. The idea behind them is that the computer can pass the computationally heavy graphical processing over to the graphic card, saving its own processing abilities for other work. This results in better graphics and better performance for games. Graphic cards are optional, but may be worth the investment if you're planning on playing a lot of very complicated 3D games. Without a dedicated graphic card, your system may not be able to handle higher video settings on some games.

Something important to remember

There's a strong demand for impressive graphics in the gaming community, and there's nothing wrong with wanting games to look good. But, this can become a toxic mindset if you place too much importance on graphics alone. Some people believe that if you're not playing games at the highest possible graphical settings, you're either setting for an inferior product or aren't a "true gamer", and this is going too far.

Games aren't movies; you're supposed to play them, not watch them. Fancy graphics are fine when they don't impose upon the gameplay, but not everyone can afford a computer that's powerful enough to use the highest quality settings, and you shouldn't demand that everyone needs to meet an arbitrary standard like this.

At the same time, you need to be realistic with your own options. If you can't afford a super powerful gaming computer with every possible bell and whistle, then you need to be content with "just" a good computer.

I'm not saying that you should settle with a broken system that's just barely able to run a word processor -- I'm just reminding you to be reasonable and understand that there will always be limitations.

Or to reference a popular and long running joke in the gaming community, it really doesn't matter if your computer can or can't run Crysis. There will be a LOT of fun games that will work just fine, regardless of what's inside your machine.

Why Windows?

Microsoft Windows is one of the three most popular operating systems in the world today, and it's also the operating system of choice for computer games. But why is that?

There are a couple of reasons, but the biggest one is likely going to be Microsoft's near monopoly in the operating system market. Since four out of five computers are running Windows, it just makes sense for software developers to focus on that operating system. It's also one less issue they'll need to deal with, as there are plenty of other problems that developers can run into.

That said, there has been a trend in recent years for developers to start porting their software to Mac and Linux machines. As these are the second and third most popular operating systems, this gives the developers the ability to sell their products to almost the entire home computer market. However, as much as I'm glad to see more diversity in the gaming community, I've tried a few of these ports, and the Windows version provided a noticably better gaming experience.

Of course, some games, like Doom and Minecraft, were designed with portability in mind. These games rarely suffer from porting issues, and play just fine everywhere. Doom especially. A popular sport amongst geeks is to get Doom running on anything. And I mean anything -- toasters, printers, cameras; if it has a screen and CPU, it's fair game to those people.

On a different note, if you're planning on playing games, you don't want a computer running Windows 10 in S mode. S mode is a special, locked down version of Windows 10. It's great for security and peace of mind, as this mode only allows software to run if it was installed from the Windows Store. The problem is that a lot of the games out there, including a surprsingly large number of the games found in the Windows Store, aren't able to run in S mode. Fortunately, switching from S mode to a normal Windows Home install is just a matter of clicks -- you don't need to pay a fee or buy anything, so be wary of people who are charging for this option.

What type of computer is best?

Home computers come in all shapes and sizes. The three most common variants are desktop PCs, laptops, and all-in-ones. Each of these are capable of being used for PC gaming, but they each have their own strengths and weaknesses.

For example, laptops are designed to be lightweight computers that you can carry around and use anywhere. That can be quite useful, but in order to keep things compact, some sacrifices need to be made. In my experience, the biggest issue with gaming on a laptop is that they don't vent their waste heat very well. It often comes up through the keyboard, which can make using the system uncomfortable.

On the other hand, desktops can't be moved about and take up a lot of room with their tower, monitor, wires and other accessories. But, unlike laptops, you can easily open their case and upgrade, replace, or even add new hardware. This customization allows you to build up their capabilities over time or change things if something didn't work out. Ventilation is also less of an issue, as there's a lot more room for airflow within the case and you can also install cooling systems if you feel they are needed.

Lastly, all-in-one units are a special breed of desktop computers. They combine the computer itself with the monitor. These can be useful if you need the extra space, but unlike a proper desktop machine, there's no way to customize their hardware. Effectively, these are a weird mix of laptop and desktop design choices, but they do make for a pretty good gaming machine.

If you're undecided, I'd suggest getting a desktop computer or an all-in-one. I'd also recommend buying from a store rather than online -- it's important to see how the screen looks and hear what the speakers sound like before you buy the entire system.

On the subject of input devices

In computer parlance, an "input device" is any piece of equipment that takes input of some kind from the user and lets the computer know about it. This can mean a keyboard, mouse, trackpad, joystick, or touch screen. There's quite a selection of options out there, so I'll include my $0.02 on them before ending this page.

On keyboards...
It might sound weird, but "gaming" keyboards are a thing. Aside from some brightly colored lights, the main difference between a gaming keyboard and a normal keyboard is the number of keypresses they can register at once. This makes it seem like the gaming keyboard reacts to player input faster than usual.

Do you need a gaming keyboard to play games?

No, a regular keyboard will do just fine. That said, it certainly can't hurt to try one if you want to spend the money.
On game controllers...
I've used a great many brands and designs of gamepads, joysticks, flightsticks, and so on over the years, and honestly, I'd say that the only really important thing is that they're comfortable. Brands don't matter as much as you'd think, so get one that fits in your hands comfortably. But still get one -- while many games play fine with a keyboard and mouse, sometimes there's no substitute for a good controller.
On trackpads...
Trackpads are the laptop world's answer to a portable mouse. They work fairly well for the basic mouse's functions, but they are no comparison to a real mouse when playing games. If you're going to play games on a laptop, use an actual mouse and disable the trackpad.
Wired or wireless?
I've never really had issues with lag, dropped signals, or other issues with a wireless mouse or keyboard. The main issue for me lies with the power supply: wired devices don't need to be recharged or have their batteries replaced, as they get their power from the USB port they're plugged into.