The most dangerous opponents in some computer games may not be the ones that appear on the screen. Computer viruses may hitch a ride on downloaded games. Or they may be hidden in the virtual online weapons and equipment that game-players can often buy online or download for free.

If one of these viruses gets into your computer it can mean more than "game over." At minimum, a computer virus can slow your computer to a crawl, and require expensive professional disinfecting to restore its performance. Or a virus could steal you and your family's banking and credit card information, and pass it along to cybercriminals.

So how can you protect your family against these nefarious attackers hidden in computer games?

A Virtual Jungle Online

The first and most important thing to understand is that everything you download — not just games — is potentially infected. Cybercriminals are relentless in looking for and exploiting gaps in security, and even well-known companies are not totally invulnerable.

All the same, risk levels vary. And players of online games, in particular, are subject to particular risks of exposing their systems to computer viruses and other forms of malware. This is in part because players are often encouraged to download virtual "weapons" or "equipment." These downloads often are made available by other game-players — but can also be provided by hackers who claim to be gamers. And even when the download website belongs to an honest, legitimate gamer, the downloads may have been infected without that person's knowledge.

Risky downloads are not limited only to games in the strict sense. Related computer entertainments, such as flight simulators or 3D graphics, also have many downloads provided by amateur enthusiasts. Their creative contributions enrich the experience, but may unwittingly expose users to computer viruses.

Layers of Protection

One way to minimize virus infection risk is to not download anything from an unfamiliar source. But this does not completely prevent malware risks, and can cause your family to miss out on many creative enhancements to game play and other recreations. A combination of sensible precautions and effective Internet security software protection can provide the basis for safe gaming online.

Every computer that goes online should have Internet security software. The most basic layer of security is free anti-malware protection. But free protection is limited, and designed largely as a starter, allowing users to sample protective software (That is why it is free!). Robust security software will provide greater flexibility and stronger protection than free software can provide. A range of powerful solutions will allow you and your family to win the battle against virus attacks, so that you can all enjoy playing computer games safely.