Internet Safety for Families: Gaming on Windows PCs

If you or your children are big online gamers, you should know the differences between your “administrator” account on your Windows PC, and your “limited user” accounts. Choosing the appropriate account to use when surfing the Web, especially when gaming, is very important to keeping your computer safe from viruses and other malicious software. In this article, the JustAskGemalto team explains the different accounts and how to use them to keep your computer safe while gaming.

What are the differences between administrator and limited user accounts?
When using our PCs there are two different modes in which we do our work and play games: “administrator” and “limited user” accounts, the differences being the level of programming control you have and the security protections.

The administrator account is the default type of account for Microsoft Windows. It lets you:

  • • Create and change user accounts
  • • Set up your computer and install your initial software and hardware
  • • Set preferences and make repairs
  • • Add new programs and hardware, such as music-sharing software or a printer

In the limited user account you cannot install programs, but do have access to the computer’s software applications such as:

  • • Internet and e-mail programs
  • • Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and Microsoft PowerPoint
  • • Entertainment programs to play games, as well as play music and video, edit photographs, and more

In addition, some versions of Windows have “guest” accounts, intended primarily for people who need temporary use of a computer; these types of accounts are generally used for quick email checks and browsing the Internet, and not for gaming purposes.

How do I know what account I am using?
It is common for people to not even know if they using their computer in administrator or limited user mode. Here is how you can tell:

  • • Click on your start menu in the lower left corner of your screen
  • • On the top, you will see a picture representing your account. Click on it
  • • You will be taken to your user account page. On the right you can see what type of account you have along with your name and picture, like this:
Screen Windows

When most applications attempt to perform a potentially dangerous operation, like installing software or running an unknown program, Windows requires administrator permission before allowing that program to run. This helps reduce the impact of viruses, spyware, and other threats.

For more information, Microsoft provides a user account demo that shows how user accounts work and how you can make changes. Windows 7 users can view Frequently Asked Questions about user accounts.

How do Windows accounts relate to gaming?
Gaming accounts are a big target for viruses and other attacks. If a virus or other malware (see: “What is spyware and malware?”) attacks through your online game and you are using your administrator account, the attacker could potentially gain full access to your computer. This could result in a catastrophic loss of data, a hacker using your PC for other attacks or the installation of software designed to steal credit card or online banking information.

Using a limited user account decreases the occurrence and impact of a virus or other malicious software, because the attacker/malware cannot make major changes to the computer.

While the safest way to game is with a limited user account, gamers sometimes report problems running games with this approach. Some games even require that you use your administrator account to play the game. What to do, then?

In cases where you absolutely must use your administrator account to play a game, you should be extremely vigilant about protecting your computer and its information.

  • • Always keep your computer protected by using an anti-virus program, a firewall and an anti-spyware/malware program, and keep them up-to-date
  • • Check and double-check that the game vendor is reputable; search for reviews or user comments posted on other well-known sites
  • • Only download games from a site you believe you can trust; free downloads of games, add-on software or “cheats” sometimes conceal malicious software. Check to see if the site is certified by an Internet Trust Organization, or use a website checker with your Internet browser. For example, McAfee Site Advisor rates website safety by scanning sites and checking downloaded files

Microsoft also provides a few helpful hints should you decide to play games in administrator mode. First, only use the account for playing the game – leave other Web browsing for your limited user account. Second, act as the administrator for your kids. Only let kids game as an administrator under adult supervision and make sure they only use that account for the game, not everything they do on the Web. Learn more advanced techniques by visiting the Microsoft site.

To sum up:

  • • The differences between “administrator” and “limited user” accounts are in the level of programming control and security protections between the two, with the administrator having full control over the system
  • • The safest way to game online is with a limited user account because it decreases the occurrence and impact of a virus or other malicious software
  • • Be extra vigilant when gaming as an administrator, and only let your children game as an administrator when supervised

See these related online gaming tips: