How to run Windows games on your Mac without Windows

The Mac has plenty of games, but it'll always get short shrift compared to Windows. If you want to play the latest games on your Mac, you have no choice but to install Windows...or do you? There are actually a few ways you can play Windows games on your Mac without having to dedicate a partition to Boot Camp or giving away huge amounts of hard drive space to a virtual machine app like VMWare Fusion or Parallels Desktop. Here's how.

Almost since the first Intel-based Macs appeared in 2006, we've been able to run Windows on our Macs. Apple provides the software to do so right built-in: Boot Camp, which enables you to partition off a segment of your hard drive and install Windows on it.

That's great provided you have plenty of hard drive space to dedicate to Windows and, oh yeah, spend the money to get a Windows license, and you're comfortable having to take care of a separate instance of Windows on your Mac. What's more, it's kind of a pain in the butt to use, since you have to restart your Mac with the option key held down every time you want to run Windows.

VMWare Fusion and Parallels Desktop are virtual machine programs, and they run many games reasonably well (though not as fast as you can "natively" with Boot Camp). As far as expense is concerned, you're still in the same boat with Boot Camp: You need to have a separate Windows license in order to run. What's more, Fusion and Desktop are commercial apps, so you have to pay for them too. (The free VirtualBox app I've written about before leaves a lot to be desired in terms of gaming performance, and isn't something I recommend.)

So there are a few other options for playing Windows games on your Mac, without the hassle or expense of having to install Windows.



One way to do it is to get a subscription to OnLive. OnLive is a cloud gaming service that enables you to play your games anywhere. OnLive works essentially by remote control: Games are run on its own computers, streamed to your local device over the Internet. You play remotely. And it works with the Mac, Windows, iOS, Android, and various other Internet-connected devices like TVs.

OnLive has a couple of different subscription models available. One is called CloudLift, and it enables you to play games you already own on Steam in the cloud; you can also buy download codes directly through OnLive. It costs $7.95 per month.

PlayPack, which costs $9.95 per month, includes a library of over 250 games. No download codes or Steam account is necessary; they're all available for playback.

Does OnLive work? Yes, it does. It's dependent on having a stable, low-latency connection to the Internet, but as long as you do, it's suitable. You'll need a Mac running OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion or later to work.


The Mac isn't the only computer whose users have wanted to run software designed for Windows. More than 20 years ago, a project was started to enable Windows software to work on POSIX-compliant operating systems like Linux. It's called The Wine Project, and the effort continues to this day. OS X is POSIX-compliant, too (it's Unix underneath all of Apple's gleam, after all), so Wine will run on the Mac too.

Wine is a recursive acronym that stands for Wine Is Not an Emulator. It's been around the Unix world for a very long time, and because OS X is a Unix-based operating system, it works on the Mac too.

As the name suggests, Wine isn't an emulator. The easiest way to think about it is as a compatibility layer that translates Windows Application Programming Interface (API) calls into something that the Mac can understand. So when a game says "draw a square on the screen," the Mac does what it's told.

You can use straight-up Wine if you're really technically minded. It isn't for the faint of heart — there are instructions online and some kind souls have set up tutorials, which you can find using Google. Wine doesn't work with all games, so the best bet is for you to start searching for which games you'd like to play, and whether anyone's gotten instructions to get it working on the Mac using Wine yet.


CrossOver Mac

CodeWeavers takes some of the sting out of Wine by making their own Wine-derived app called CrossOver Mac. CrossOver Mac is basically Wine with specialized Mac support. Like Wine, it's a Windows compatibility layer for the Mac that enables some games to run.

CodeWeavers has modified the source code to Wine, made some improvements to configuration to make it easier, and provides support for their product, so you shouldn't be totally out in the cold if you have trouble getting things to run.

My experience with CrossOver — like Wine — is somewhat hit or miss. Its list of actual supported games is pretty small. Many other unsupported games work; the CrossOver community has many notes about what to do or how to get them to work, which are referenced by the installation program. But still, if you're more comfortable with an app that's supported by a company, CrossOver may be worth a try. What's more, a free trial is available for download, so you won't be on the hook to pay anything to give it a shot.



If you're an old-school gamer and you have a hankering to play DOS-based PC games on your Mac, you may have good luck with Boxer. Boxer is a straight up emulator designed especially for the Mac, designed to make it possible to run DOS games without having to do anything in the way of configuring, installing extra software or messing around in the Mac Terminal app.

With Boxer, you can just drag and drop CD-ROMs (or disk images) from the DOS games you'd like to play. It also wraps them into self-contained "gameboxes" to make them easy to play in the future, and gives you a clean interface to find the games you have installed.

Boxer is built using DOSBox, a DOS emulation project that gets a lot of use over at, a commercial game download service that houses hundreds of older PC games that work with the Mac. So if you've ever downloaded a game that works using DOSBox, you'll have a basic idea of what to expect.

Some final thoughts, and your ideas

In the end, I find OnLive to be the most reliable way to have a good Windows gaming experience on the Mac, but even then, there are limits: OnLive doesn't work in areas where you don't have a robust, low-latency connection to the Internet. In fact, I've had better luck with it by actually tethering to Ethernet instead of using Wi-Fi. Having said that, it works. And accessories like their dedicated game controller and set-top box make OnLive even more fun. Plus if you have Steam, you can play many of the same games you may already own for a PC on OnLive.

I'm an old-school gamer, so I also have a soft spot for Boxer. It's fun to use to play games that have been gathering dust for years but which are still so much fun to play.

This isn't meant to be an exhaustive of every possible avenue that Windows gamers can use to get Windows games working on the Mac without having to install Windows itself. But hopefully I've gotten the ball rolling for some of you. If you have any any suggestions for other ways to get Windows games working on your Mac without the messy Windows stuff, let me know in the comments.