In malls around the country, in shopping centers in your neighborhood, you'll find stores that contain wall-to-wall games. And these games aren't just titles that you and your kids can enjoy on the family PC. The most popular gaming platforms are computer-independent consoles such as the Microsoft Xbox and the Sony PlayStation 2. Games are big business, and thanks to the Internet, the game industry is growing even larger.

More and more people are discovering that online game playing brings a new dimension to the art of games. This phenomenon isn't difficult to understand. All games—whether you're talking about tic-tac-toe, chess, Pong, or today's ultra-realistic shooters—are competitive by nature. Although installing a brand-new game onto your computer or into your console is always fun, playing any sort of game repeatedly by yourself eventually becomes tiresome. Even when you compete against the computer, you know exactly what it will do after a few hours. Once you finish the game, you probably won't touch it again, simply because you've "been there, done that."

Games Energized
Pitting your skills against another human being takes game playing to a completely new level. When you play a game online, you're facing opponents who have real brains (usually), and those opponents will vary from game to game. These are opponents who will recognize whether you keep using the same tactics, and they'll constantly be trying to devise strategies with which to beat you. When you finally win an online game, you feel a real buzz.

By going online, you'll also have no shortage of opponents just waiting to compete. Finding a worthy opponent to play against at any time—24 hours a day, 7 days a week, all year round—is a straightforward task. The geographical location of your opponent is irrelevant. He or she might live in the next suburb, or indeed, on the other side of the world. Many of these gamers don't seem to require sleep—they just want to beat you at your game.

A plethora of games are available online, and new ones are appearing on a regular basis. You can play simple strategy games, such as chess and bridge, and you can play hugely popular genre games of all kinds, including role-playing games in which players take on specialized roles and interact with other players in simulated online environments. You can play sports games, and you can play action games, such as the first-person shooters in which the goal is to destroy as much as possible in the shortest amount of time. You can compete in driving/racing games—for instance, motocross or car racing—in which your nerves and reaction times are put to the test. One gamer I recently spoke to said, "The thought of racing against others in a fair environment is driving me crazy. When you think about it, with more than 500 cars and 50 tracks, how can anyone resist?"

Online games typically come with a rating that lets you know the sort of person the game has been designed for. There are games that will be best enjoyed by teenagers, as well as games that are intended for only mature audiences. There are also plenty of games for kids and for general audiences.

Two Ways to Play
So, you've made up your mind that online game playing is something you’d like to experience. What's the next step? Essentially, there are two popular ways to play games online.

Resource Sites
Your first option is to visit one of the many sites that now offer online game playing resources. This method is by far the simplest way to get started, because all you need is a Web browser application, such as Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE), along with access to the Web. You might also have to ensure that your browser is configured to execute specialized code snippets that have been written in Java or JavaScript. (For more information about this type of requirement, consult your browser's Help section.) Three examples of these game-playing resource sites are Yahoo! Games, Pogo, and MSN Zone.com.

The Yahoo! Games site, for example, offers a large variety of games to choose from—and plenty of players, too. The last time I visited this site, it boasted more than 150,000 online players. To simplify the task of finding games that interest you, the site's contents are conveniently organized into game categories such as card games, arcade games, board and tile games, word games, and fantasy sports.

One of the most enjoyable and addictive games on the Yahoo! Games site is Literati, a multiplayer crossword game. Similar in some ways to the perennial favorite Scrabble, Literati is a game whose objective is to form words using a selection of letter tiles. Depending on your previous experience with the game, you can choose to play Literati in any number of global game rooms—for example, Social, Beginner, Intermediate, or Advanced. Also, at any time, you can quickly check your competitive game standing by referring to the official Literati ladder.

Before you can enjoy the games on Yahoo!, you must first sign up for a Yahoo! ID. It's free, and it takes only a few minutes to sign up. The bonus is that you can then use your Yahoo! ID for a variety of other personalized Yahoo! Services, such as a free email address and account.

Game Console
The second, enormously popular way to play games online is to hook up a game console, such as your Xbox or PlayStation 2 unit, to the Web. This option breathes new life into your console and opens up an exciting new range of gaming possibilities not only for you and your friends but also for people in the gaming community.

For example, Xbox Live is the name Microsoft has come up with for connecting its Xbox console to the Web. Already, there’s a large variety of “Live-enabled” games for you to choose from—from All Star Baseball and NFL Fever to Rally Sport Racing and defending the Republic in Star Wars battles. And game designers around the world are working hard to bring you even more games as quickly as possible. Xbox Live is all about playing games online in real time against real opponents.

And if you think that sounds like a blast, you'll have even more fun with the “Game with Fame” feature. As you might gather from the name, "Game with Fame" lets you use Xbox Live to play games against celebrities. Imagine bragging about that sort of a victory to your friends! To see which celebrities will be online in the coming months, keep a regular watch on the Xbox Live section of the Xbox site.

In addition to Microsoft, the other big-time provider of online gaming facilities is Sony. To show you how to get your gaming console Web-powered, let’s take a peek at the PlayStation 2 process and how to get it ready for battle.

Setting Up Online Console Gaming
To get yourself hooked up for online gaming through your game console, you'll need a network-compatible game, a network adaptor, and a broadband Internet connection. (Note that with some ISPs, you might find that you also require a router for everything to work properly.) Although these requirements might initially appear to be somewhat complicated, don't be overly concerned. Detailed instructions that lead you step by step through the entire installation process are widely available online. For example, when you visit the Online Gaming section of Sony's PlayStation site, you'll find an Online Support section that covers both installation and troubleshooting. You'll even find advice about where to purchase your network adaptor.

Sony Wizard Example
A cool feature of the PlayStation Online Support section is its Network Adaptor Wizard, which you'll find on the right side of the screen. Using this wizard is like having a personal assistant who can explain the purpose of the network adaptor, how it works, and how to hook it up.

Using the wizard is easy. After you start it, you simply answer a series of multiple-choice questions to obtain the information you need. For example, on its opening screen, the wizard asks you whether you want information about the network adaptor, whether you'd like to work your way through the Installation Guide, or whether you need assistance with troubleshooting a problem.

The wizard is quite intuitive. For instance, the wizard asks you whether you intend to connect your network adaptor through an ISP or through a Local Area Network (LAN). If you choose the latter option, the wizard asks you whether you'll be using a standard or wireless router to connect to the LAN. However, if you choose the ISP option, the wizard queries you about the type of connection you'll be using: Dial-Up, Automatic Configuration (for Broadband, DHCP, without ISP Username and Password), Broadband with ISP Username and Password, or Advanced Setup (for Static IP). If some of this terminology is unfamiliar to you, or if you need to refresh yourself on definitions, you can find out more by clicking the wizard's Network Glossary link.

By studying the wizard's photographs and diagrams, you'll be able to readily identify the connections you need to set up between your PC, the network connector, the router, and the DSL or cable modem. You'll also see how you should attach cables, such as an Ethernet network cable, to the various ports (e.g., LAN and WAN ports). If you don’t want to fiddle around with messy cables, you have a cleaner solution: Connect your PlayStation 2 using a wireless network that incorporates a wireless Ethernet bridge. Again, the wizard provides an appropriate diagram that illustrates exactly what you need.

Whenever you run into problems while playing online games with your PlayStation 2, you can request the wizard's help. For instance, if you're accessing the Web through a high-speed DSL or cable connection, the wizard can show you how to double-check your connection or how to decipher certain error messages. More important, the wizard can help you rectify the problem. Suppose your connection fails and becomes unreliable. The solution might be as straightforward as buying yourself a router: A router can often make it easier for your ISP to establish the online connection that's required in your particular circumstances.

Jump Right In
The best way to start playing games online is to jump right in and get wet. One veteran game player that I talked to recalled that he personally began by simply talking online with others. "In most cases, friendships build up with just small chat," he said. "Then, you start to learn more about each other, and the next thing you know, you're on each other's buddy list. Everyone is generally good tempered, and you'll find that there are a lot of core groups that know each other and joke around with everyone. So, it's pretty easy to sit down for a quick game, then crawl into bed hours later because you were having so much fun."

After you overcome your initial shyness, finding people to play against online is easy. You simply log on to the online gaming service or resource site of your choice and find someone. You'll be able to nail down a competitor in your chosen game 99.9 percent of the time.

Message Board Fun
One of the most appealing aspects of online gaming is that you can visit established gaming forums and message boards. These are good places for finding out about other games that people enjoy, reading opinions about upcoming games, scheduling times with other people to play certain games, and swapping tactics and ideas. However, if you've never participated in an online forum before, don’t just jump in and start posting messages. That's a sure way to annoy the players who regularly participate in discussions.

First, take some time to read through the "new user guides" that you'll find on each of the major gaming sites. A good example of one of these online documents is the PlayStation.com Message Board New User Guide. Not only can you find out about the different components of the PlayStation message board, you'll also learn about Netiquette—that is, the responsible way of communicating online with other players. One example of poor Netiquette concerns players using ASCII characters. These types of characters are tough for other players to type, and board administrators don't like them because they make their jobs difficult. Another example of poor Netiquette is using ALL CAPITALS in your posts—a practice that's considered to be the online equivalent of shouting. Such indiscretions might seem trivial to you, but they're highly frowned upon, and if you're a perpetrator, you could find yourself being flamed. Flaming is when upset members of an online community bombard you with messages berating you for your ignorance and selfishness!

A Couple of Cool Games
Online gaming presents the ultimate challenge—to be the best player in the world at your favorite game. Once you become immersed in playing games over the Web, the only real problem you'll have is finding enough time to play them. So, to get you started, what are currently the best online console games? Not surprisingly, everyone has a different opinion about that question, depending on which online gamers you talk to, the types of games you personally prefer to play, and which of the many different online game review sites that you visit. However, here are two online games that we think deserve at least a nod of recognition.

Links 2004 (Xbox)
Golf is one of the most widely played games in the world, so it should come as no surprise to find that you can also play golf online on any number of virtual golf courses. For example, Links 2004 lets you play competitive rounds of golf with friends from around the globe via Xbox Live. And you aren't restricted to playing golf just once, twice, or even three times a week. If you want, you can play online any time of the day or night.

But maybe you're tired of playing against your regular buddies. Perhaps you no longer find that challenging or exciting enough. That's OK, because the other way you can play Links 2004 is to participate in championship tournaments, in which some of the best players on the golfing circuit will be your direct opponents. And by playing Links 2004 in Tour Mode, you can extend yourself and see just how far you can progress up the tournament ladder. As a bonus, when you make a great shot in Links 2004, a gallery of your devoted fans will cheer you on!

SOCOM II: U.S. Navy SEALs (PlayStation 2)
In SOCOM II: U.S. Navy SEALs, you're assigned the role of a SEAL commander, and it's your task to protect America—as well as her world allies—from terrorism. Your mission is proactive, so you'll lead your team of experts through a series of a dozen nerve-wracking raids. Your challenge in this game is to demonstrate outstanding leadership and to encourage your team members with your courage and quick thinking. Your country needs you, and now is the time to stand up and be accountable!

You can optionally use a USB headset to issue commands and to converse with individual members of your elite team. Note that this game has been rated M for mature audiences (17 years and over) by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) because of its blood and violence.

Where To Next?
For more information about online game playing—for example, to read about everything from setup walkthroughs to online game rankings—I recommend paying a visit to the online game sections of the gaming sites linked in this article. When you visit these sites, watch for the FAQ sections, in which you're likely to find the answers you need to start playing with the least amount of confusion and hassle. Enjoy your online game playing! Once you start, your life will never be quite the same again.