PC gaming enthusiasts might brag that the mouse and keyboard is the best control scheme, but while a mouse's precision works well in genres such as first-person shooters and strategy games, many titles with third-person perspectives -- especially those ported from consoles -- are best played with a controller. Whether you're more comfortable using a directional pad with tricky 2D platforming or you need an analog stick to move in more than eight directions in an action game, the option is there to hook up a controller, lean back and play in comfort. Most recently released controllers work on the computer without much effort, though those from the PS3 and PS4 require unofficial drivers.
Xbox 360 Controllers
Whether labeled as a PC controller or not, every wired Xbox 360 controller works on Windows. To set up the controller on any Windows system back to XP SP 2, download the software from Microsoft's website and install it before connecting the controller. If you have Windows 8, the system should pick up on the controller automatically, but if it doesn't, download the Windows 7 version of the software. Wireless 360 controllers require a special adapter that comes with wireless controllers designed for PC. These controllers also include an installation CD for the adapter, in case your computer doesn't recognize it automatically.
Xbox One Controllers
Xbox One controllers require you to manually install a driver, which you can download from Microsoft, before you connect the controller with a micro USB cable: The wireless functionality is not supported. Unlike the 360 controller, Xbox One controllers only support systems back to Windows 7, but otherwise work similarly.
Other PC Controllers
Thanks to the 360 controller's popularity on PC, most computer games with controller support use XInput, a system for interpreting 360 controller button presses. In turn, most PC controller manufacturers also design XInput controllers that work with Microsoft's official 360 drivers. Older controllers -- or those designed to work with old games -- use DirectInput instead, or offer a DirectInput toggle. These controllers might require or offer more features when used with software provided by the manufacturer, which is usually included with the controller or offered online.
Sony does not offer PC drivers for PlayStation 3 or 4 controllers -- even though Windows recognizes and charges a PS3 controller attached by USB, the controller isn't recognized by any games. To get these controllers working, you need to use third-party software or hardware. The easiest, though most expensive, option is to buy a USB controller adapter, which takes care of the incompatibility. For free controller support, download and install unofficial drivers: DS4Windows for the PS4 controller or MotioninJoy for PS3. DS4Windows offers a self-explanatory setup, but MotioninJoy is a bit trickier. To get it working after installation, plug in the controller, click "Driver Manager" in MotioninJoy's DS3 Tool and press "Load Driver." Click "Profiles" and choose "PlayStation 3" to enable the controller. To switch to wireless use on PCs with a Bluetooth adapter, click "Pair Now" in the tool's Bluetooth options before disconnecting the cable.
Windows Controller Settings
Regardless of which controller you use, the Control Panel on Windows 7 or 8 provides basic controller settings. Press "Windows-R" and run "joy.cpl," pick your controller and click "Properties" to test the buttons and identify which button corresponds to which button number. Some games require you to set up your controls using these numbers. Switch to the "Settings" tab to recalibrate your controller if the analog sticks don't respond correctly. After checking that your controller works, start up a game and use the in-game options to switch to the controller and, if the game allows, customize the buttons. Some old games require you to pick a preferred controller, which you can set with the "Advanced" button in the Control Panel. If a game doesn't support a controller at all, try binding buttons to keyboard keys using a program such as the free JoyToKey or the paid, but more user-friendly, Xpadder.
Aaron Parson has been writing about electronics, software and games since 2006, contributing to several technology websites and working with NewsHour Productions. Parson holds a Bachelor of Arts from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.