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How Does Steam Work? A Basic Overview

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The Steam store page. This is the home screen of Steam.

The Steam store page. This is the home screen of Steam.

What Is Steam?

If you're a PC gamer, chances are you'll come across Steam at some point. Steam is a digital distribution service for video games that features a vibrant community. The service has many features that you never realised you even wanted. It also has a marketplace that offers continuous sales on all kinds of games, from major releases to indie titles.

As a user, you'll use the library function to access all of your games that use Steam (sometimes listed as Steamworks) as their primary DRM (Digital Rights Management) mechanism. Steam provides easy access to these games; they also offer stats about your playing habits and a community page for each title, which can be very handy sometimes.

Unlike other DRMs/launchers (like Uplay and Origin), Steam actually operates as intended and is minimally intrusive. It's very easy to use once you know your way around and friendly to both beginners and advanced users.

How Do I Download Steam?

You can download the service from the installation page and have it running on your computer in no time. Simply click the install button and download it like any other program.

Buying a game on Steam is as easy as adding it to your cart and checking out. There's also a 'purchase as a gift' option if you want to treat one of your friends!

Buying a game on Steam is as easy as adding it to your cart and checking out. There's also a 'purchase as a gift' option if you want to treat one of your friends!

The Steam Store

The first thing you'll see when you open Steam - unless you've downloaded it along with a game - is the Store page. It operates within the application much like any other online store. You will see games and software you can buy.

It's worth noting that everything you buy from the Steam store will be a digital download. There are no physical disks, no boxes, and no shipping to pay and/or wait for. You can buy your game and download it instantly! This is one of many reasons I've become a huge fan of Steam in the few years I've been using it.

Purchases can be paid via credit card or with a Steam gift card. You can also use PayPal if it is available in your country. Funds can also be credited to your Steam wallet for both in-store and various in-game purchases. It's incredibly user friendly - I know because even I could figure it out!

The Steam Library

Okay, now that you've got a game (or two. Or ten...) on Steam, you'll need to know how the library works.

You can see my list of games in the image above. This is only a small section (I may have a small problem of owning more games than I could possibly play) for illustration purposes, but whether you've got three or three hundred games on your list, it'll look the same.

The greyed out games are ones you own but don't have installed on the computer you're using. The ones with bright white names are games that are installed and ready to play.

You can install any of the games you own at any time by clicking on their entry and hitting the 'install' button to the right of the list (see the image above). Steam keeps track of all the games you own, so you can have more than what you can possibly fit on your hard drive and not worry about keeping the disks and CD keys around. Once you've bought the game, you've got them for as long as you have an account. This is handy for those of us who have nearly 300 games in our library.

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To play your games, just double-click the name or click once and then click the 'play' button from the games' page (see the second image above).

The Steam community page.

The Steam community page.

The Steam Community

The Steam community is a major part of the service. Not only does the community feature allow you to see what other games people are playing and talking about, it also lets you maintain a friends list and provides an in-app chat.

There are individual community pages for every game on Steam where discussions, screenshots and fan works are shared. They can be a great resource if you're experiencing a bug, stuck on a particular part, trying to figure out how to get an achievement or just want to talk about how much fun you're having!

How Do I Activate a Game on Steam?

If you purchase a game that uses Steam from another website as a digital download, you'll be given a product key that you can use to activate the game on Steam.

On the bottom left-hand corner of the Steam app window, you'll see a button that says 'add a game'. If you click there, a menu with the options will come up. You will want to select 'activate a product on Steam'. Once you do that, follow the prompts in the popup, type or paste in your game key when the box appears and you're set!

Steam game keys can only be used once, so make sure you don't share it with your friends before you activate it. Once you activate a game, it will be permanently added to your library, so there's no need to keep the key on file.

What Platform Does Steam Work On?

Steam is currently available on Windows, macOS, Linux, iOS and Android.

Keep in mind that some games on Steam may not be compatible with specific platforms. A warning will pop up if you try to install a game on an incompatible platform.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Amanda on March 19, 2020:

Hi - so COVID-19 has us all home and my family and I want to play boardgames online. Obviously, we will all need an account but e.g, if we want to play Clue do we ALL have to buy the game or can one of us buy it and then invite others to play?

Benjamin eckert on May 30, 2018:

How does it work how u get started how do u set it up or work it

optimos on September 19, 2015:

yeah but does a steam wallet code work glabal or just where you buy the code

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