There are few better ways to use time, a PC, and an Internet connection than by whiling away a few hours with online games. And you frequently don't have to pay to play on the Internet: Hundreds, if not thousands, of sites offer a veritable cornucopia of free games, from online versions of classic card and board games to cute casual puzzlers and TV-game-show style multiplayer pastimes.
The problem is picking the right site. Phishers, hackers, and spyware distributors are notorious for using the promise of free games to hook their victims. Other sites are legitimate but limited, with a small selection of boring games.
So to help you play, and play safe, we compiled this sampler of our favorite free game sites, offering everything from single-player arcade classics to a surprisingly sophisticated multiplayer Pictionary clone. We even found freebie versions of big-download titles originally created for PCs and/or consoles.
Many sites are ad-supported (some pile on notices urging you to click on said ads); you may also have to install an Active X control, Java, or Adobe's Flash player. But you'll never have to type in a credit card number -- and you may just find a new way to enjoy your PC.
We've numbered the sites to help you keep count, rather than in order of preference.
The big portals
These are perhaps the four major game portals. Although AOL Games now incorporates Pogo.com, it still exists as a separate site, so we count it here as one of our top 15.
If you've ever taken even a remote interest in playing games online, you've probably already stumbled on to one of the big portal game sites. But if you haven't checked out AOL Games (aka Pogo.com), MSN Games, or Yahoo Games recently, you might want to pay a visit to see just how large and impressive these mega-collections have become.
As ever, you'll find the best free board and card games here -- MSN even offers duplicate scoring with its bridge game, although Pogo's interface is more user-friendly -- but these offerings have been fleshed out with literally dozens of Flash and Active X games, many of which are Web-based versions of arcade-style titles you may have run into on a console or even a handheld device (think Bejeweled or Alchemy).
Yahoo has a particularly appealing collection of Flash-based casual games: I'm currently hooked on Armor Games' Trapped! -- a point-and-click puzzle adventure in which you wake up with amnesia in a locked bathroom and must use your wits not only to escape, but to figure out what's going on.
A secondary addiction is 2D Play's Perfect Pizza, in which you try to place various toppings on your pizza exactly the way they are positioned on a model pizza.
What I especially like about Yahoo's games is that Yahoo accompanies them with a link to the game's publisher, so if you like a game on Yahoo, you can visit the publisher's site to look at its other games. Because of Trapped! I checked out Armor Games and found a slew of interesting Flash games.