Whether you're a seasoned veteran or a casual gamer, if you play PC games, chances are you've heard of Steam. Steam was originally built by Valve as a gaming platform for cutting edge online multiplayer games. These days, though, it does so much more. Steam has become a virtual hub for PC gamers offering many titles such as Fallout 4. It allows them to browse forums, chat, download and purchase new games, organize teams, and manage game files across different systems. You're probably already familiar with famous Valve games such as Portal, Counter Strike, Left 4 Dead, Team Fortress, Half-Life and many, many others.
Unfortunately, Steam suffers from the same annoying problems as other multiplayer platforms, such as Xbox Live. The platform was created by a large business that exists to make money. As such, there are some strict account and download restrictions. These exist out of legal necessity, to help the business avoid liability issues. To that end, it's pretty common for modern gaming platforms to restrict content to certain geographic regions.
Thankfully, a Virtual Private Network (VPN) tunnel can help alleviate some of the irritation these restrictions create.
Unblock content with a VPN for Steam
VPN tunnels help unblock foreign content through a feature called IP address masking. The masking feature allows your computer or device to “borrow” an IP address from a foreign VPN server. The VPN server, which hosts your borrowed address, obtains data on your behalf and then forwards that data to your device. In the reverse direction, the VPN server sends data from your device to the destination server (Steam's servers, in this case) from its own IP address. The destination servers can't see your real IP address. Thus it appears to the Steam servers that they're only interacting with the VPN server.
Since IP addresses are distributed by geographical region, it's possible to circumvent content censorship and account restrictions. Proxy servers work in much the same way. However, VPN tunnels are superior because they encrypt data, making it unreadable to third parties. A proxy server does not. For that reason, I'd recommend sticking with VPN tunnels if you want to access Steam. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I must first offer a warning regarding Steam VPNs.
For more information, check out our What is a proxy server guide, where we take a look at proxy servers and how they differ to VPNs.
Will Steam Ban Me For Using a VPN?
Like most other online gaming platforms, Steam is subject to strict regulations and licensing restrictions. These force it to limit liability and dissuade users from using proxy connections and VPN tunnels. Again, this isn't uncommon among gaming platforms. Thankfully, PC gamers aren't as encumbered as console gamers. For instance, on an Xbox 360, Microsoft wrote the operating system to purposefully omit VPN functionality. That way, users can't connect the console to a VPN tunnel directly (though there are other ways to use VPNs with consoles).
On a PC or a Mac, however, it simply isn't feasible (or even possible) to disallow the use of VPN tunnels. As such, Steam users have a much easier time of unblocking content that's been geo-restricted. Nevertheless, I need to warn you: if you get caught downloading games (and other materials) on a VPN connection, you run the risk Steam banning your account. It's all spelled out in great detail in the Steam Subscriber Agreement. More specifically, pay attention to section 3-A: Payment Authorization.
The SSA clearly states the following:
“You agree that you will not use IP proxying or other methods to disguise the place of your residence, whether to circumvent geographical restrictions on game content, to purchase at pricing not applicable to your geography, or for any other purpose. If you do this, Valve may terminate your access to your Account.”
If you still want to use a VPN tunnel, proceed with caution. It seems that there is some tolerance for the use of VPN tunnels, depending on the reason you're using them, what you do, and whether or not you get caught. However, there are also some definite reasons that will result in a banned account when using a VPN tunnel. When connecting to Steam, make sure you don't use a VPN tunnel or proxy for any of the following purposes without understanding the risk of a ban:
To circumvent geographical restrictions on game content
To purchase games and media at prices not applicable in your region
For any purpose that can harm other Valve users
The term “game content” is rather gray and vague. When I first heard that term, I instantly thought of game purchases, downloadable content and other similar uses. However, there have been plenty of accounts banned because users connected to regions where a video game had an earlier release date. Even though the game was technically legal in their region (eventually), the users were still punished.
As such, if you don't want to run the risk of getting your account banned, it's best to abstain from using a VPN tunnel with your Steam account, especially when trying to access games that aren't available in your area. Too many users tried to use a Russia VPN for Steam to illegally access content before it was released in Russia, and their accounts were banned as a result.
Shared Servers and Shared IP Addresses
Your average VPN subscription, regardless of which provider you choose, typically uses a shared IP address. This means that many other users can access the internet with the same IP address hosted on the VPN server. This helps protect users' anonymity. If the long arm of the law tried to trace users' online activities, it would be virtually impossible to trace the connection back to the real user for two reasons.
Firstly, most VPN providers don't keep log files of user activity. Thus there wouldn't be a paper trail to follow. Secondly, since multiple users share the same address, it would make it that much more difficult to zero in on which user actually accessed a particular web resource from the shared IP address. However, when trying to access internet resources that try to limit, restrict or completely block the use of VPN tunnels, shared addresses aren't typically your best option.
Shared IP addresses are frequently “blacklisted” by the service provider, and are usually well-known addresses. This is due to the “bad neighbor” effect, whereby someone sharing your VPN-hosted IP address (or a previous user) abused the IP address for spam emails, Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks or other misuses. In turn, this can cause that IP address to be flagged as a dangerous or illegitimate address, and frequently cause Captcha verification applets to appear before you can access a website. As such, even though shared IP addresses offer greater anonymity, they are more often blacklisted.
There are two ways to circumvent this problem. The first solution is to use a VPN provider that offers a dedicated IP address, meaning that no other users will use the IP address that you subscribe to. This is better than a shared address if you don't want a service – such as Steam – to ban your account. The best option, though, in terms of the lowest risk of an account ban, is to use your own private server. If you're a hardcore Steam user and really want a private server, you could do one of the following:
Set up a home-brewed Linux VPN server to access game content when you're away from home
Lease a dedicated/private server in the cloud
These options aren't as simple as subscribing to a VPN service, but they are highly effective alternatives.
VPN tunnels remain the best way to securely unblock content. They are vastly superior to proxy connections thanks to their encryption. That's why many gamers still turn to VPN services to unblock foreign game content, and connect to foreign multiplayer servers. However, use caution: if you use a VPN tunnel with Steam to unblock game content or download games unavailable in your region, your account could be banned.
The Best VPNs for Steam: Side-by-Side Comparison
For more information about the fastest VPN for gaming and using a VPN on other platforms take a look at the guides below: