Can you play games on a Chromebook?
Chromebooks are amazing devices when it comes to most routine, web-based tasks. But what about those times when you want to push life and work to the side and blow off a little steam? Is gaming on a Chromebook even an option?
Yes and No (and kinda…)
If you are looking to fire up your Chromebook and dive into a gaming experience that matches that of a gaming console or PC made in the last decade (or even farther back in some cases), you can’t. Full stop… Do not buy a Chromebook if your primary goal is playing games with it.
Chrome OS is a browser-based operating system which means the device’s architecture is focused on delivering a snappy, reliable web browsing experience. Innovations in the Chrome browser and Chrome OS have made productivity tasks like desktop publishing, basic photo editing, and media playback possible in very reliable ways, but video games are a different animal.
This is not to say there are no options for some playtime on your Chromebook, you need to just temper your expectations based upon what is technically possible. You aren’t going to be natively running Steam or any Windows PC games on your Chromebook; you are truly limited to browser-based experiences. That being said, the Chrome Browser can run HTML5 and Flash based games fairly well (the language of most browser-based games); anything requiring Java, however, is going to be a no-go.
Luckily there are a lot of fun games that take advantage of a browser-based environment. As Chromebooks have risen in popularity, the Chrome Web Store has swollen with developers publishing titles that will play on Chrome OS. Most of these games are rather simplistic compared to modern PC or console games, but there are certainly some gems. Digital Trends posted a helpful list of 20 of the Chrome Web Store’s best game options to get you started (I can’t get enough of Spelunky!).
As with any application store, there is plenty of bloat, suspiciously familiar clones, and downright broken pieces of software. Do yourself (and your hardware) a favor and read the reviews of any game you are tempted to download before you add it to Chrome. If they are looking for more access or information than you think a game should have, find a less invasive game to play.
Social Media Games
For a lot of people, Facebook games like Farmville were their first experiences being totally engrossed with a video game. Unfortunately, many of these games were poorly optimized to begin with (even when played on a powerful PC or Mac); throw them onto a Chromebook working with only 2GB of RAM, and you are not going to get the smoothest experience in most cases.
If there are particular social media games you are interested in, there are a few things you can do to ensure the best odds of getting into the game:
- Ensure the game is running in either Flash or HTML5 (Java won’t work and Shockwave is shaky at best)
- Close all open programs and start your game in a fresh Chrome browser session
- Use a Chromebook with 4GB of RAM if possible
Again, social media-based games are finicky – so don’t be surprised if your Chromebook isn’t able to deliver the full experience your PC, Mac, or Linux browsers can.
Streaming games from a second Computer
When all else fails, you can always stream a Java or stubborn web-based game from another internet-connected computer using Chrome Remote Desktop. While this isn’t the optimal solution for games requiring quick-twitch reflexes, social games tend to be in the right wheelhouse for more passive, laid-back play. This makes streaming a realistic option in most cases.
Some low-level PC games will be playable this way, as well. I played through several full games of Civilization IV and V on my Chromebook by streaming them over Chrome Remote Desktop (DirectX 9 mode worked best). Ultimately, whether a game will work remotely depends a lot on video drivers and the actual software that is running on the source computer. There will also typically be some noticeable video and input lag so you can certainly forget about action or timing-based games.
Android Apps for Chrome
Google has been rolling out support for Android Apps on the Google Play store on some Chromebook models. There is the promise for an even more expanded rollout, but as with many Google rollouts, there are few details about exactly when and how this expansion will continue.
Hardware-wise, this is an area where your Chromebook’s RAM and processor matter. 4GB of RAM and an Intel Celeron-based architecture will typically provide a higher degree of compatibility and gaming performance than a 2GB setup and/or a slower processor.
For those fortunate enough to have a Chromebook that can run the Android Apps from the Google Play store, there is a plethora of games to try. Much like the Chrome Web Store, be sure to check reviews and descriptions of any software you are looking to install; for every solid game offered on the Play Store, there are four times as many clones and broken apps. Using a 4 star and up rating search seems to weed out a lot of the worst offenders while still leaving plenty of options.
Another thing to consider is that most of these games were designed for a touch-screen interface. While there are some touch-enabled Chromebooks, the majority of users will be stuck with sub-optimal keyboard and mouse controls for most games.
Gaming with emulators
Thanks to platforms like Nintendo’s Virtual Console and (legally questionable) DIY projects like the RetroPie, retro video game emulation is becoming increasingly common-place. When you look at the hardware in the old video game consoles from the 90s and earlier, it would stand to reason that the superior hardware of a modern Chromebook should handle these games without a problem.
Once again, the web-based interface of Chrome OS rears its head as a potential roadblock. There are some emulators that run fairly well locally in Chrome OS (like the GameBoy Advance emulator VBA-M), but most suffer from performance issues and slowdowns that make gameplay difficult (especially on lower-RAM models).
All hope is not lost! Web-based emulators open the prospects a bit wider as the majority of the heavy lifting is done on sites’ host servers rather than on your Chromebook.
For example, The Internet Arcade on archive.org is a viable web-based option for those looking to play some golden-era arcade classics on their Chromebook. Classic titles like Q-Bert, Paperboy, Food Fight, and Defender are all available in streaming form at playable framerates (even on mid-tier Chromebooks with only 2GB of RAM). Other web-based emulation sites like game-oldies.com are available, but, even with off-site servers doing some of the heavy lifting, most don’t match the performance of the offerings on archive.org.
As always with emulators, be sure you are following the applicable laws in your area for proper ownership of the software titles you emulate.
Playing with controllers
Regardless of whether you are running games locally or through web-based options, controls will be another possible stumbling block. Controller support is also very limited on Chrome OS. Some users have found ways to get Bluetooth or USB gamepads to work, but this is the exception rather than the rule for most programs. The keyboard is going to be the main interface for gameplay.
Taking into account the limited control options and the limited power provided by most Chromebooks, users will have the best success emulating slower-paced games like RPGs or turn-based experiences.
Old School PC Games on a Chromebook
One potential diamond in the rough for Chromebook gaming is a program called DOSBox. DOSBox is an open-source piece of software that emulates DOS, the basic interface for most PCs in the pre-Windows era.
Installing games on a Chromebook using DOSBox isn’t for the faint of heart. Users report varying degrees of success depending on their hardware and the programs they are trying to run, but since most of these games were designed for mouse and keyboard they remain intriguing options to explore.
For less-adventurous users, the browser-based versions of DOSbox-emulated games available on archive.org may be the easiest option. For these games, the tricky configuration work is done for you on the server-side so you can just jump in and play (although forget about saving your progress in games like Maniac Mansion!).
Linux on a Chromebook
If none of these options seem like they will adequately scratch your gaming itch, you do have one more option (at least with most Chromebook models). It is possible load a Linux operating system like Ubuntu either alongside Chrome OS or as a Chrome OS replacement. This will allow you to load Linux compatible games, some Windows programs (through software like Wine), or even use your Chromebook for Steam In-Home Streaming from another PC on the same network as your Chromebook. Check out LifeHacker’s guide for how to dive into the world of Linux with your Chromebook.
Once again, if you are interested in a device focused on gaming, a Chromebook isn’t it. However, if you are a Chromebook user looking to add some fun distractions to your device, there are legitimate options out there for you.
Some of the more complex gaming options will require specific or more powerful hardware (Android Google Play Store, Linux) while others will require some extra effort to configure (DOSBox, offline emulators).
In the end, you can turn your Chromebook into a passable gaming machine; but other, equally inexpensive alternatives exist that will provide you with much richer, and more user-friendly gaming experiences like the Raspberry Pi 3 (a small form-factor computer) or emulation-friendly gaming consoles like the Nintendo Wii, Nintendo Wii-U, or Sony PSP.
What ways have you found to play on your Chromebook? Share some of your favorite Chromebook gaming tips and experiences in the comments below!