HOWTO Improve Your PC Gaming by 100% in 5 Minutes

I play video games on a PC. I know this may come as a surprise to some of you – after all I typically don’t blog about gaming that much at all. I mean it’s not like I have a dedicated category for PC game reviews or anything like that. It would be silly, don’t you think. But yes, I am a PC gamer, a firm believer in the One True Gaben (may he deliver HL3 unto us as it was foretold at the dawn of time) and I actually never really felt the need to own a console.

PC Gamers vs Console Pesants

PC Gamers vs Console Pesants

Actually, this is a lie – I used to own PS1 (btw I am so glad you can still say Playstation 1 without having to clarify you mean the first generation rather than next generation as it is now the case with Microsoft’s XBONE console) back when we lived in caves and I rode a dinosaur to school every day, uphill and in a snowstorm. I never really upgraded it, because I realized that PC had all the games I wanted to play. There were only two times in my life when a console exclusive made me consider actually investing into one of them gaming boxes, but both times I resisted.

The first time was when Shadow of the Colossus came out, and everyone was raving about how amazing that game was and how they totally cried when the horse died or some shit like that. But I resisted that temptation. The second time was when The Last of Us came out, and internet was raving about how good that game was as well. But there would be no point in buying a PS3 now that PS4 is around the corner just to play one game, which despite popular belief (and to my great disappointment) does not include Ellen Page (she is in another game though).

To wit, I won’t be buying PS4 either because my computer is still pretty decent at running new games. So unless PS4 has like 20 mind blowing, incredible exclusives that are right up my alley then there is no point. I probably don’t have to mention I’m not even considering XBONE at this point for obvious reasons. Speaking of which, isn’t it great that gamer kids on Reddit learned to hate Microsoft now? They were all still in the womb in the 90′s when we were hating on Microsoft on slashdot, and I was always kinda baffled by the MS love on that site. Now it feels like the good old days again. But I digress.

If you are a PC gamer like me, we have a common enemy. This motherfucker:

The Windows Key

The Windows Key

Don’t even try giving me that look! You know exactly what I mean, don’t you? You hate that asshole key just as much as I do, even if you don’t want to admit it. We all do. But wait, let me explain this to the unwashed console peasants.

Peasants, listen up. Firstly, don’t blame me for calling you that. All complains should go directly to Yahtzee and his Zero Punctuation video that spawned this meme. Secondly, let me explain the Windows key to you. When you run Microsoft’s OS it functions as a mostly useless meta key. By default when you hit it it bring up a start menu, but it’s main function is to be used in hot-key combos. It is a component of about dozen or so keyboard shortcuts, among which the Win+L combo is the most useful one as it lets you quickly lock your screen when you get up from your computer. If this was all it did, there would be no reason to hate it at all. But it has one weird property.

For some reason, when you hit it while running a full screen application (such as a video game) it will instantly minimize it to the task-bar and bring the start menu into focus. In essence it does exactly what Alt+Tab was designed to do but it is infinitely easier to hit by accident.

The Windows key typically sits in a very privileged spot on the keyboard: on the left side, right between the Ctrl and the Alt keys. Majority of PC games use the WASD key block for movement, and surrounding keys for various actions. For example in FPS games the control key is commonly used for crouching. Some games also use the Alt key – especially ones that have a lot of hot keys. A great example of this is DOTA2 which pretty much uses all the keys on the left side of the keyboard: ZXCVB keys for items, Ctrl for giving group orders, Alt for auto-cast, and etc. In other words you are expected to hit all the buttons around the Windows key, without ever touching it. You can probably imagine that in the heat of the moment, a bad positioning of the hand can lead to accidental hit of that dreaded key. In multiplayer games like DOTA2 it usually means you die because the context switch between the game and Windows and back may take anywhere between 5-10 seconds during which your in-game avatar is going to just be standing there doing the idle animation. That’s more than enough time for the enemy to kill you.

Naturally, some game designers know how annoying this can be and so they disable context switching completely. This however is a controversial thing to do, as many gamers enjoy the ability to “tab out” of the game to for example check a game guide, write an email or do something else. The ability to switch out of the game is not a problem: the problem is positioning of the key that triggers that action. And unfortunately that’s not something that a game designer can change.

The good news is that the person that can actually do something about it is you. Yes, you. You have a screw driver level access to your computer, so you can do anything. And no, I’m not advocating prying off the damn key – screwdriver is just a metaphor here. We actually do not need to stoop down to barbaric hardware mutilation, when we can use software.

In my Least Useful Key post I mentioned the Map Keyboard tool by Inch West. In the past I used it to re-map my Caps Lock key to Esc because this made my life easier when working with Vim. I figured I could do the same for my gaming.

Map Keyboard Tool

Map Keyboard Tool

The question is, what should the key be remapped to? With Vim I knew exactly which keys I wanted to swap places: the useless key with the super useful one. Windows key however has legitimate users, but I don’t want it around when gaming. I have spent most of my life trying to avoid hitting that key while in-game so there is really no point binding it to anything as this would be wasteful – old habits die hard.

So I decided to disable it completely. Nowadays my left Windows is a dead key – the OS simply ignores it. A lot of keyboards tend to have two of these (one on each side) so if you disable the left one, you can still use the right one. My keyboard didn’t actually have one on the right (which is actually smart, because there is really no reason to have two) so I re-mapped my right Ctrl key to work as Windows key.

Why? Well, I’m a power user so I actually do use some of these Win key shortcuts, so I didn’t want to deprive myself of them. On the other hand I don’t think I have ever in my life pressed the right Ctrl. In fact, I wasn’t aware it even existed on my keyboard until I started looking for an alternate key to bind Windows to. So it ended up working well.

Ever since I made that change, my enjoyment of video games has hugely improved. It is now impossible for me to accidentally minimize my game in the heat of the moment but I have not lost the ability to do it when I want to. For that I can use the right Control or Alt+Tab. I honestly think every PC gamer should do this.

Have you ever considered doing something similar on your machine? What was your most frustrating Windows key moment? Let me know in the comments.

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9 Responses to HOWTO Improve Your PC Gaming by 100% in 5 Minutes

  1. where do i start? Well at first i really do own some gaming consoles. There is that N64 my wife brought into our mariage, there is a Wii we use on occasion (and that i still failed to bring to play DVDs, since i got the new controllers and not what everyone else uses -.-) and 1-2 months ago i bought me an archos gamepad, that is now the pretty exclusive platform i play on.
    …really… Android! (yes, i must be insane)
    But that thing has specs good enough to run emulators for pretty much every console i ever wanted (GB/(S)NES/SMD/N64/…) and even on android there are some pretty nice games flying around for less than 2-3€.
    I could even connect it via HDMI and USB and play with 2-3 controllers on the big screen.

    But back to remapping keys. I did that on a regular basis to make better use of some crappy layouts of laptop-keyboards. Nowadays the only laptop i still use is my toshiba ac100 and even though those keys are labeled absolutely wrong (again… there WAS android on that device too) they are wired pretty ok.

    My gaming PC nowadays just runs linux. Why? Because i didn’t buy any new PC-Games in the last 2 years. Before that there were 1-2 Games a year and i even downloaded some, but currently there just isn’t a single one i really wanted to play. Even worse: the last 3-4 Games i bought were so horribly crippled with DRM-Fuckups that i couldn’t even run them 50% of the time.
    I still play at my PC… some FPS work pretty decent under linux and i have far more good opensource games, then i have time to play (well time to play, while not doing something other in parralel. My Gaming PC is placed in a far corner of the room, going over there and booting it is something i don’t do unless i really plan to play 1-2h straight)

    so… again back to remapping keys. No, i no longer do that. But back in my days even windows-games became a bit more stable and didn’t freeze/explode/whatever on alt+tab anymore. Most of them even disabled win-key themself while they ran.

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  2. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    How do you not know of the right Ctrl? Thay’s the secret sauce in the one-handed ctrl-alt-del.

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  3. Eric Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Actually with Win8 the ‘Win-Key’ has become the central command key. Switching to the Desktop with [Win]+[D] and calling the program list with [Win]

    As soon as you get used to it starting programs in Windows was never faster – like [Win] dar [enter] calls my writing tool Darkroom, [Win] f [enter] starts firefox [Win] net [enter] Nettalk …

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  4. Eric wrote:

    Actually with Win8 the ‘Win-Key’ has become the central command key. Switching to the Desktop with [Win]+[D] and calling the program list with [Win]

    As soon as you get used to it starting programs in Windows was never faster – like [Win] dar [enter] calls my writing tool Darkroom, [Win] f [enter] starts firefox [Win] net [enter] Nettalk …

    you mean like all those other systems did it 10 years ago? Like even windows vista/7 do it (but without screen-filling menu-bullshit, but you could enter things into “run” right after pressing mod4, giving you exactly the same functionality)? Like even my i3wm does it, when i press mod4+d?
    WHOA! Hold it! that’s too much progress for a single windows-version!

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  5. Eric GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @ Dr. Azrael Tod: That is exactly what I am saying …

    ;)

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  6. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Google Chrome Linux Terminalist says:

    Dr. Azrael Tod wrote:

    I did that on a regular basis to make better use of some crappy layouts of laptop-keyboards.

    Tell me about it. I especially love the trick with hiding the delete key somewhere between Shift and ? keys.

    Also, Macbook keyboard with the fn on the edge and Ctrltucked in where Windows typically have the Win key. :P

    @ Matt`:

    Really? On my keyboard it is almost impossible to do without contorting my right hand into some weird, unnatural shape. I can kinda do it with the left but that defeats the purpose a bit.

    @ Eric:

    I think that works in Win7 and Vista as well, no?

    @ Dr. Azrael Tod:

    Obligatory Penny Arcade.

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  7. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Maybe I just have freakish long fingers. I can comfortably do either one of
    [Thumb => Alt Gr, Index finger => Right Ctrl, Middle finger => Delete]
    [Thumb => Alt Gr, Ring finger/Pinky => Right Ctrl, Middle finger => Delete]

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  8. Jed AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    People still use ctrl alt del?
    I’ve used ctrl shift esc instead for many years now, is much easier, and brings you straight to the task manager, rather than a middle screen that you have to choose to open the task manager from. Plus it’s very easy to do with one hand, I use nothing but my thumb and index finger

    Anyway, to the topic of the post, yes I’ve had the windows key remapped to something else or nothing for ages now, back when I had a worse computer, sometimes hitting that key would mean the game would not come back up at all, or if it did, it would take in excess of 2-5 mins, so I really went out of my way to disable it.

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  9. Always a great feature of a keyboard is a windows lock / gaming mode setting. In the event it actually works properly, anyway.

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