We’ve grown accustomed to seeing Chromebooks as simple productivity machines: a web interface for schoolwork, online productivity apps, and not much else. But there are also many ways to game on a Chromebook.
You have three options for playing games on most modern Chromebooks: as a web app, an Android app, or remotely via one of the previous two ways. Gaming on a Chromebook can mean playing the same games you would on a PC, but given all the options, you could argue that the diversity of games on a Chromebook is richer than that of a PC.
However, as we’ll explain, many of the gaming capabilities that a Chromebook offers depend on accessing a game on a remote server. The quality of such gaming experiences depends on the quality of your internet connection and to some extent on the processor the Chromebook contains. Only Android apps, many of which rely on the presence of a slower Arm chip, run natively (and probably very smoothly) on the Chromebook itself.
Which Chromebook should I buy for gaming
Our recommended Chromebooks for gaming:
Playing web games on a Chromebook
As you might expect, playing a game in a web browser on a Chromebook is a lot like playing on a PC’s web browser: load the site and you’re good to go. In 2021 there is one key difference from previous years: Chrome 88, released in January 2021, eliminated support for Adobe Flash, the foundation for an entire generation of web games.
However, the much-discussed demise of Flash gave popular Flash entertainment sources like Newgrounds.com time to convert their games to HTML5 or provide temporary plugins. Visiting a site like Newgrounds will allow you to play the site’s simple Flash games and movies without any problem. A competing site, Kongregate.com, asks you to install a SWF plugin.
Be warned: Flash games on sites like Newgrounds can be notoriously weird. Creative coders used to put their own spin on Nintendo games and other licensed IP, which lawyers have now destroyed, making games like Woman Quest and Escape from Happy Homes in addition to some really interesting games like Pink or Small fragments.
Browser-based gaming starts to open up a little more when you visit the Chrome Web Store, which lets you download Chrome game extensions. Click here with caution, as Google seems to have ditched its dedicated gaming section for some reason. Chances are you need to look for older games like games Cut the rope or Tank drivers by name.
A smaller number of native browser-based games will take advantage of your Chromebook’s CPU and graphics capabilities. A good example of this is webquake, essentially the demo of the old iD game earthquake, or an open source version of the PC classic Civilization, known as FreeCiv Web.
The “traditional” browser-based games are certainly not exclusive to Chromebooks. Games like Fallen London and kingdom of disgust are more traditional point-and-click adventures. We recommend PC Gamer’s collection of browser games for additional options. They should all be playable on a Chromebook.
Play Android games on a Chromebook
In 2016, Google launched Chrome OS 53, the version of the Chromebook operating system that allowed ChromeOS-powered Chromebooks to run Android apps. Pretty much every Chromebook shipment since 2019 includes this capability.
For gaming, your Chromebook is just a bigger Android phone. In fact, your Chromebook contains the Google Play Store app in the Chrome OS shelf, also known as the taskbar. Select the app you want to install and Google will download it and install it on your Chromebook.
Since many Android apps rely on touch, you’ll want to have a Chromebook equipped with a touchscreen. You’ll also quickly find yourself holding your phone vertically, while a Chromebook’s screen is oriented horizontally in landscape mode. Many Android games create a narrow vertical strip on a horizontal screen. With a Chromebook that you can fold into a tablet configuration and then reorient to a vertical portrait mode, you can take full advantage of your “tablet” screen.
A Chromebook also allows you to mix and match input methods. In some games, a touchscreen is best, although a touchpad or mouse might serve just as well. Games like Asphalt 8 Smartly supports both keyboard input and Chromebooks with gyroscopes, for tilt control.
As for gaming recommendations, the sky is the limit. We selected the best action games for Android a few years ago and followed that up with the best Android games of the year, period. Many PC games, such as: Grand Theft Auto III: San Andreas, have made the move from the PC and console to native Android apps. According to Statista, there will be more than 480,000 Android games available as of Q1 2021, so you’ll have plenty to choose from.
We can’t say for sure how well each game will run on your Chromebook, but the affordable price usually justifies trying them out. Google’s refund policy also usually gives you 48 hours to decide whether you want to keep the game or get your money back.
Play PC games remotely on a Chromebook
Once you start combining the power of a web or Android app with a Chromebook, your gaming horizon can expand further. However, it is at this point that gaming is moving from the Chromebook to the cloud.
Remote or cloud gaming uses a remote PC or console and streams the resulting content to your Chromebook. You sign up for a service like Google Stadia and usually download a small web app or Android utility. You can usually connect an Xbox controller or other external controller to the Chromebook or just use a keyboard and mouse.
During gameplay, the Chromebook and app take your button or key input, send it to the cloud PC over the internet, and then show you the results of your actions. It goes so fast that you more or less “play” the game directly on your Chromebook.
There will always be a bit of input lag, making fast, nervous games less responsive. You will see better results with, say, metropolitan broadband connections than nationwide DSL. However, that’s less important in slower adventure and exploration games, which is why a game like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey was a launch title for the Google Stadia service.
Google Stadia shipped standard with new Chromebooks in February 2021, so you can try out cloud gaming on Google’s own service. But – and this is a big but – our original review of the Stadia service was based on a wired Ethernet connection, which dramatically improved performance. Most Chromebooks do not have an Ethernet connection. Stadia is priced relatively affordably: $9.99 per month, and there are some top games.
In 2021 you will have access to a number of different cloud services. In 2020 I used Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass app (part of a $14.99/month Game Pass Ultimate subscription) to play Xbox cloud games on a Chromebook — that story has a detailed evaluation of how to set it up, plus what works and what doesn’t. Unfortunately, Sony’s PlayStation Now service requires a Windows 10 PC, not a Chromebook. Google’s cloud rival Amazon is also planning a service called Amazon Luna that will eventually run on Android devices, but for now it’s stuck in early access.
We haven’t even looked at all the cloud gaming services available. An intriguing option is Shadow, which can stream to a PC or a Chromebook’s Android app. You can subscribe to Shadowfor $12 a month. Pony $25, and Shadow promises your game can run on the equivalent of an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 in the cloud. Yes, ray-traced graphics on a Chromebook!
If you have a PC, there’s another option: use your PC as the local ‘cloud’ and stream games from it. It is a viable option if the ‘gaming’ PC is in another room in the house and a child wants to spend some time outside of office hours in the privacy of his room. That used to be the domain of Nvidia’s GeForce-powered GameStream tech and the so-so Shield TV, but an open-source project called Moonlight is taking the GameStream protocol and can also push it to Android devices like Chromebooks. (Valve has unfortunately killed its similar Steam Link service.)
All of these competitive options available offer users two major advantages. Competition should keep prices in check, and you will have a wealth of services and games you can choose from. Part of the hurdle is simply accepting those cheap, portable little Chromebooks can are used as slot machines – you just need to find out what works for you.