Estimated reading time: 21 minute(s)
I came across an interesting article published on Unixsheikh.com titled My 70 year old mother has been using Linux on the desktop for the past 21 years. As someone who has been using Linux for one-and-one-half years and has no plans to go back, I thought that the author’s highlighting that there are a number of normal-user-friendly Linux distributions that present graphical user interface elements that are familiar to Windows and Mac users to be useful. For example, he notes that his mother-in-law uses Linux Mint – a distribution that makes it easy for longtime Windows users to transition to Linux. However, with agreement comes disagreement, and I disagreed with Unixsheikh’s argument that compatibility windows that allow Windows games to run on Linux are undesirable.
Unixsheikh’s view is that these compatibility layers fgenerally eliminate the incentive for companies and developers to create games for Linux. Conversely, my view is that that these tools are necessary to create an environment where companies would find that it makes financial sense to create and maintain more games for Linux.
Although I will begin the post by examining Unixsheikh’s position, this is not a reply post. Instead, I am treating Unixsheikh’s provocative take as a prompt that I will then use to explore in my own way issues involving gaming on Linux and gaming as a barrier to trying Linux.
Running Windows Games On Linux
In short, it is possible to run many games that are native to Windows on computers running Linux through a compatibility layer. I am nowhere near knowledgeable enough to explain how this works on a technical level, but the two most common ways to run Windows games on Linux are Wine and a Steam fork of Wine called Proton.
Thanks to the development of Wine (and subsequently, Proton), a large number of popular Windows games now run well on Linux.
Unixsheikh’s Case Against Wine and Proton
Is this a good thing? I think it is. But Unixsheikh has a different take. Firstly, he takes the position that it is a problem that there are still relatively few games that are built for Linux (at least when compared to Windows). This is why, he explains, that “gamers won’t play games on Linux…” But why then are Wine and Proton not solutions? Unixsheikh offers his take:
Proton and Wine is NOT the solution, they are part of the problem. Proton and Wine are helping prolong the Microsoft monopoly on PC gaming! What we need is for some of the big game developing companies to release some of their biggest names on Linux only, with absolutely no support for Windows. This will help break the monopoly and make gamers want to migrate to Linux for PC gaming.
Unixsheikh thus acknowledged that Wine and Proton make playing many Windows games possible on Linux, but he took the view that “you’re not supposed to run Windows games on Linux.” He clarified, explaining that he was “not saying that it is ‘wrong’ in any kind of meaningful way,” but that playing Windows games on Linux “keep[s] the Microsoft monopoly going.”
(While I think I am summarizing Unixsheikh’s case fairly, I encourage you to read his full post so you can see his views in the flow of his essay.)
Having quoted the pertinent parts of Unixsheikh’s essay, I will explain why I think that tools that allow for playing more Linux games on Windows reduces a key barrier to a small subset of Windows users moving to Linux.
If Wishes Were Ponies
As a Linux user who plays some computer games, I agree that Unixsheikh’s hope for major games to run natively on Linux is desirable. But as the saying goes: If wishes were ponies (I modified the saying for a cheap link-back to one of my older articles).
To begin, I do not think that Linux desktop users are even on the radar of big game companies. As of September 2021, StatCounter recorded Linux as having a 1.77% desktop operating system market share in the United States. (It is not clear what percentage of that 1.77% are servers instead of regular workstations or personal computers.) Linux came in behind Windows (61.23%), OS X (26.97%), Chrome OS (8.18%), and “Unknown” (1.84%).
Windows dominance is even more pronounced for the serious gaming crowd.
In light of these statistics, I agree entirely with Unixsheikh when he acknowledges that “[g]etting Windows games to run on Linux in the first place is ‘a miracle’…”
It is thanks to the efforts of the Linux community for many years and the recent interest of Valve, the company that operates Steam (the most popular computer game platform), in building consoles that run its own versions of Linux.
Where I Disagree
My disagreement with Unixsheikh comes down to two main points. Firstly, I do not think that compatibility tools like Wine and Proton “prolong the Microsoft monopoly on Linux gaming.” To the extent there is a “Microsoft monopoly,” it is because Windows is the overwhelming choice of both gamers and ordinary desktop computer users. Wine and Proton have created the conditions for undermining the “monopoly” by making it possible for the hardcore gamers to seriously consider moving from Windows to Linux. How tools which enable people to move from Windows to Linux is is beyond me.
Unixsheikh states that “[n]obody will care about making games for Linux when every Linux user is simply using Wine or Proton to make the game work.”
The reason why many major game companies do not care about making games for Linux is because Linux desktop users comprise a tiny segment of their market. This is the same reason why there are many more native Windows games than Mac OS games, and there are many more Mac OS users than Linux users. Here, in my less-learned view, I think Unixsheikh overlooks that Linux gamers do prefer native Linux games, if for no other reason that running a native game is more straightforward than relying on compatibility layers which may work fine at point A but run into problems after an update at point B. These preferences will only reach game developers if there are many more Linux gamers.
Goals and No Zero Sum Games
More gamers using Linux is the only thing that will inspire companies to produce more games for Linux. There will only be more gamers on Linux if gamers can play their games on Linux. Wine and Proton are both good and necessary as a threshold that enables gamers to game on Linux..
Gaming is not a zero sum game between Linux and Windows. I can confidently assert that we are a long way away from seeing Linux achieve parity with Windows in terms of commercial game offerings. The goal here is not to establish Linux as supreme in the realm of gaming. The goal is to make gaming on Linux easier for ordinary gamers.
I have spent enough time disagreeing with Unixsheikh’s arguments. The New Leaf Journal is a site for solutions. Ultimately, I share Unixsheikh’s desire to see more Linux users playing more games made for Linux. The question is how to get from point A to point B. What sacrifices, or deviations from the path that we would take in an ideal world, are acceptable? From here on out, I will focus on my own assessment of the issues.
To the extent that this essay examines how Windows gamers can be invited to try Linux, I should clarify that I am not referring to all Windows gamers. The audience that I have in mind in this essay are Windows gamers who have no special proficiency in Linux or programming, some base level of interest in trying Linux, and the ability and curiosity to learn the basics of managing one of the popular, user-friendly-to-newcomers Linux distributions as a daily driver. My essay is not concerned with trying to attract happy Windows gamers with absolutely no interest in running Linux to move. It is also not contemplating trying to persuade Windows gamers who would want or require nothing short of the exact gaming experience they have on Windows on a Linux system.
Finally, the target audience for persuasion in this post are Windows gamers with ordinary, everyday computer proficiency – not professionals or people who already have extensive experience with Linux. Instead, this post examines how Linux users – including those who possess vastly more knowledge than I do – can consider the issues of gaming on Linux in a way that is practical for ordinary Windows gamers. By “ordinary Windows gamer,” I mean your regular Joe on Steam who has always used Windows and possesses a large library of digital games – someone who is an expert in games rather than system administration.
To begin, I think I come at this issue from a different perspective than Unixsheikh. I have only been using Linux since August 2020. Before that, I had Windows computers (Windows 95, XP, 7, and 10) continuously. While my knowledge of how to navigate Linux has greatly improved and I have gradually moved away from using a desktop environment and workflow that exactly mirrors stock Windows, I am still definitely on the lower-end of Linux proficiency, far from an expert like Unixsheikh. In this way, I can approach some of the challenges from a perspective closer to that of a Windows user than someone who can comfortably install and configure vanilla Arch or FreeBSD.
While I am not a heavy computer-gamer (I generally prefer playing games on consoles), one reason that I did not consider Linux when I built a computer for the first time in 2011 was because I understood that its ability to run games was limited when compared to Windows. Games were not a decisive factor when I built moved to Linux in 2020, but I did take note that advancements in running Windows games on Linux would allow me to play most of the games in my library.
(If you have more technical ideas or feedback, feel free to let me know through our Contact Form.)
Before offering my ideas, I must define precisely what it is that I hope to accomplish.
I recently published an article about a concept that I coined the digital home. Therein, I articulated my desire to make it easier for people to establish a place of their own in the digital world, where they control their data and how they consume information, free from big tech entities that view people as products to sell. In this vein, I have advocated for the use of RSS as an alternative to consuming news curated by Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the like, and I have advocated for humane web design and user-friendly alternatives to inhumane software and services. (Do note: By “humane” I mean broadly by humans, for humans rather than some sort of abstract humanitarianism. I am also not expressly referring to the Center for Humane Technology, although I do recommend following their work.)
There are many Linux distributions founded on different principles for different purposes and audiences. That something is open source or Linux does not mean that it checks all the boxes I listed above. With that being said, the popular user-friendly Linux distributions are free and open source and broadly far superior in all humane aspects to Windows, Mac OS, and Chrome OS. I have written about similar alternatives to Android in the mobile sphere: Ubuntu Touch, Lineage OS, and /e/ OS.
How Do Games Fit In?
Where do games fit into this? While I cannot say for sure, I think that my position on games here is similar to Unixsheikh’s. Gaming is a barrier to entry to Linux for some Windows users. That is, there is likely a subset of gamers who might try Linux but for the gaming issue. Now, to be clear, I think that this subset is most likely much smaller than I understood what Unixsheikh was suggesting, but it does exist.
Whether the number of people who would try Linux as their daily driver but for the games barrier is small or large is not the issue. Linux is too far from a tipping-point event for its evangelists to concern themselves with big game hunting. Instead, Linux advocates should be looking at how to make gains on the margins. Baby steps to giant strides.
That is, the objective here need not be games on Linux per se, but removing games as a barrier to entry to Linux. The ultimate goal is to make it easier for people to control their digital environments and their own data. Adoption of Linux is one of the best ways to advance this objective. Improving the status of gaming on Linux is one of the best ways to increase adoption of Linux.
Games Are Not The Only Barrier
Before continuing, it is worth noting that there are other potential barriers to entry to Linux other than video games, although I think that some of these barriers have been better ameliorated by free and open source alternatives than have barriers to high-level gaming. To use one example, I understand that running up-to-date versions Adobe Photoshop is not possible on Linux. To be sure, Linux has plenty of free and open source alternatives, but I am not qualified to tell someone who relies on Photoshop for his or her livelihood that these are suitable replacements (I will leave that question to the experts). I have heard others say that video editing programs available for Linux are not fully comparable to those on Windows and Mac OS. Here again I have no opinion since I do not edit videos.
I only note these to highlight that there are other areas to address to increase adoption of Linux beyond games. The rest of my discussion will focus almost exclusively on games on Linux.
Meet Potential Linux Users Where They Are
Let us assume that we have two friends: Tom and Von. Tom is an open source enthusiast who follows all the ideas that I discussed in my digital home piece (but he is more technically proficient than me, so he easily self-hosts all of his services). Von uses Windows on his personal computer because he likes games and Mac OS on his work computer because he likes its video editing solutions. Von does not care all that much about the digital home, privacy, or decentralization.
However, Von finds some things about Windows and Mac OS annoying. He always complains to Tom about Windows updates and how Windows makes it hard for him to customize his system. Regarding Mac OS, while Tom is not on the vanguard of the “right to repair” movement, he finds it frustrating that he has to go to Apple to fix problems with his hardware. Because of this, Von expresses some interest in what Tom uses. Is it really better?
Tom has a moment. How does he seize the moment? Tom needs to meet Von where Von is, not where Tom wants Von to be. The reasons why Tom goes through the trouble of hosting his own services may not matter to Von. The reasons that Tom switched to Linux 10 years ago may be very different than the reasons that Von is willing to entertain the idea now.
Should Tom bludgeon Von into submission with his ideals?
I think not. To be sure, Tom should highlight why things such as privacy and data ownership are important, but Von has his own reasons for wanting to hear about what Tom is doing.
Tom should begin by listening to Von. Understand what Tom is dissatisfied with about his current situation and what he wants to change.
In considering what advice to give Von, Tom should think long-term. That is, he should be honest with Von about what switching to Linux would mean for Von’s specific use cases and workflow. This means touting the benefits and acknowledging some drawbacks and limitations that may exist for Von. While I have no intention of returning to Windows or ever touching a Mac, both operating systems offer a set of services that work better for some things and worse for others. Different Linux operating systems have their strengths and weaknesses – and even in the best case, there are things that someone coming from Windows or Mac OS will have to adjust to.
By actually listening to Von and understanding what Von needs and wants, Tom can give Von advice that may help him transition to Linux if that turns out to be the best idea for Von. Moreover, at a minimum, Tom may have some advice to help Von improve his digital life on Windows and Mac OS in ways that align with Tom’s correct ideas, but short of actually moving to Linux.
Since this article is about games on Linux, let us consider that issue (I will not address Von’s video editing concerns here).
Von tells Tom that he looked through his game collection on Steam and saw that about 70% of his games are not native to Linux. He is worried. “I spent all this money on these games – would I be able to play them if I switched to Linux?”
Option One: Purity
(Before continuing – I state for the record that I am not suggesting that Unixsheikh or any specific person would make the specious argument that I present below. This is a parody of the type of purist view that would deter gamers from trying Linux as a daily driver.)
Tom, being a rational person, tells Von to cast those games aside. “Von, it is true that you can run many Windows games on Linux by using Steam’s Proton with occasional tweaks that you can find with a simple internet search, but this is a bad idea.”
“Why,” asks Von, “would it hurt my computer? I was thinking about going with Linux if my favorite games would run well.”
“No! It’s the principle! By playing Windows games on Linux using compatibility tools, you are only strengthening Microsoft’s iron grip on the gaming industry. You have but two choices. Stay on Windows or never think of those games again. Demand Linux only versions of those games so that other gamers may follow you through the breach.”
“Thanks, I think I’ll stick with Windows despite the fact that it’s annoying me.”
Tom had more: “There are free and open source Linux games you can download instead! Wait… this one is only on Microsoft-owned GitHub. Let’s see which ones have their repositories on GitLab instead.”
But Von wasn’t convinced.
Option Two: Meeting Von
Tom is a reasonable person. He understands that Von has a very real concern about moving to Linux. Von loves games and has spent real money on his game collection. There are several games that Von plays online with his good friends, and being able to play those games is not negotiable. These games are how Von spends time with friends who now live far away.
Tom sees that Von is genuinely interested in trying something new. He thinks that it would be great if Von could use Linux. But he knows that Von can only use Linux if Von’s favorite games run well under Wine and Proton.
Because Tom understands Von’s concerns and takes them seriously, he offers to look at Von’s game collection and find user reports from ProtonDB for the Windows games that Von is worried about. Tom then gives Von an honest assessment of what he could expect for his gaming on Linux. This assessment includes a note that the fact a Windows game may work perfectly under Proton now does not mean that a future game update will not cause problems – and that Von will have to be prepared for that possibility and know where to look for help (and of course, he can always ask Tom for a tip on where to find some clues).
Comparing the Approaches
When Tom works from the perspective of Von’s interests in the world that actually exists instead of trying to will the world he wants into existence, he is far more likely to show Von either that Linux is adequate for his needs or that it may be some time in the near future.
Tom acknowledges that it is possible that Von cannot, at this time, use Linux as his sole daily driver. But Tom knows it is best to be honest with Von about the pluses and minuses. If the truth is that Von cannot use Linux alone now, he may still try it in the future. If Von tries it and realizes that Tom misled him, that will be the end of the story.
Tom has two goals. He wants Von to be satisfied with his choice, and he wants to see more gamers use Linux. So long as Tom remembers that the first goal is the most important one, he can give sound advice.
It is possible that the conclusion that Tom and Von reach may fall somewhere in between “I will replace Windows right now” and “I will never leave Windows.” Perhaps Von concludes that his games would not run well enough under Linux at this time, but being impressed with the progress, he will see how the situation develops over the next year or two. Maybe Von is enthusiastic enough about Linux to learn how to install it alongside Windows, in order that he can try it (either as his primary operating system or as a test) while still having the comfort of knowing that he can play his favorite games with his good friends.
If Tom approaches the issue in the right way, he can help Von make the best choice for Von.
The Steam Factor
We turn to the pachyderm in the Linux gaming room.
Valve, the company behind the Steam computer game platform, in no way represents the ideas of the free software movement. Steam is proprietary, sells digital games protected by DRM, and collects telemetry on users. Yet it is in large part because Steam, the biggest player in computer gaming, has taken an interest in Linux that Linux has become a viable option for gamers who have neither the time nor inclination to get into the nuts and bolts of trying to get Windows games to work under Wine. Not only has Steam put forward Proton, but it has also used Linux in both versions of its proprietary operating system.
Steam’s new “Steam Deck” operating system – a sort of computer game alternative to the Nintendo Switch, runs an operating system based on Arch Linux (my desktop operating system, Manjaro Linux, is also based on Arch). Steam Deck will rely on Proton to a large extent to handle popular games that are only native to Windows. However, if the console becomes popular, it is easy to envision there being more demand for there to be Linux versions of Windows games that run perfectly without the need for any compatibility layers. Moreover, if someone discovers that he or she can play almost every game that he or she wants to play on the Steam Deck, that may well make the idea of trying an operating system such as Manjaro on his or her next personal computer appealing. (It will, however, be incumbent on Linux advocates to explain the connection.)
This is not to say that I think that Steam’s dominance in the world of computer gaming is an unequivocal good, only to note that Valve is, indirectly and for its own purposes, helping to make it possible for some Windows gamers to seriously consider Linux.
I performed a very unscientific search of games on Linux for Windows, Mac OS, and Linux/Steam OS. I simply sorted games on Steam by name and then looked individually at how many results were returned for each of the three operating systems (search completed on January 8, 2022). The results were as follows:
- Windows: 111,127
- Mac OS: 31,982
- Linux / Steam OS: 20,283
To be clear, these statistics refer only to games that have versions built for Linux. It does not include Windows games that can run on Linux with help.
In light of the paucity of Linux desktop users when compared to Mac OS and Windows users (just over 1% of Steam users in 2021 ran Linux), there is nevertheless a large number of native Linux games. The numbers are even better for popular games. According to ProtonDB as of January 8, 2022, 30% of the top 10 and 30% of the top 100 Steam games in terms of popularity have native Linux versions.
There is work to be done. Both Linux gamers and those in the Linux community who want more people to use Linux have an interest in there being more native Linux games. But the fact that 30% of the 100 best-selling games on Steam have Linux versions is nothing to scoff at. This is great progress separate and apart from advances in Proton and Wine, and even greater progress when considered along with those advancements. It is something worth acknowledging and celebrating. With the arrival of the Steam Deck in the near future, we can hope to see more companies consider releasing versions of their games that can run on both Linux desktops and Steam’s own console without compatibility layers or tweaks.
Having noted this progress, we must also be realistic. Incentives for a Linux-first strategy for big game companies do not exist, and they cannot be willed into existence. If they ever come to be, the fact that tools like Wine and Proton attract gamers to Linux will be big part of the reason. If there are more gamers on Linux, there will be more incentive to deliver games to them that work without compatibility tools. These tools do not entrench Microsoft’s dominance in gaming; they make it possible for a subset of Windows users to transition to Linux. Like it or not, Microsoft’s dominance will persist for the foreseeable future.
Thinking of Wine and Proton as a Form of Decentralization
What if we think of Wine and Proton as decentralizing forces?
Unixsheikh used as an example of why he disfavors running Windows games through Wine and Proton that “you’re not supposed to run PlayStation games on Windows.” Taking emulation out of the equation, I suppose this is true. But what of it? Is this an inherently good or bad thing? Does the Linux community or anyone else benefit from operating computer game Balkanization?
While there are many things built into Windows that I do not want in Linux, I see no reason why I should hope that terrific games for Windows cannot be played on Linux.
The RSS Analogy
One reason that I am a big proponent of RSS is that it is a decentralized standard. I can gather feeds from sources I enjoy – such as The New Leaf Journal or Unixsheikh’s website – and read them in one of many available RSS clients. Many publishers and social media giants hate RSS for this reason. One online magazine site wants people to see their ads. Twitter wants people to only read Twitter content on Twitter. For those who want to follow particular tweeters, I do not think that end-arounds that allow people to follow Twitter feeds via RSS or efforts by tweeters to syndicate their tweets to other better platforms and services are bad – as in why are you are only supposed to consume this content on Twitter.
It would be good if Twitter itself allowed people to follow individual posters without being on Twitter (it would be better still if Twitter did not exist). But Twitter has no incentive to do that at this time regardless of what its critics desire (sadly, it also intends to ignore me and continue existing). Should we eschew quasi-compatibility solutions that allow people to enjoy specific Twitter content without being on Twitter?
(Yes. Twitter should disappear and TikTok should be banned.)
I think not.
To use another great RSS example, I discussed the process for subscribing to Substack newsletters as RSS feeds. Substack is a proprietary newsletter platform. I suppose the newsletters are intended to be delivered by email. But Substack added RSS as a default option, meaning that people can enjoy the newsletters without subscribing by email. Now email itself is already decentralized, but allowing for RSS subscriptions (which we also offer for our newsletter) allows people to follow newsletters with another decentralized standard.
Decentralizing Gaming With Compatibility Layers
Games are very different than RSS, but we can apply similar ideas. It will continue to be the case for some time that many popular games will be exclusive to Windows. Accepting this fact, should we disfavor tools that free these games from the constraints of a single proprietary operating system and allows fans to enjoy them on Linux? I think not. In this sense, compatibility layers have a decentralizing effect. Wine and Proton have liberated thousands of games that could previously only be enjoyed in Windows. In so doing, they have freed a non-insignificant number of gamers to be able to consider Linux as a viable choice for their home computers. Even though we hope to see more of these games actually built for Linux, it is an unequivocally good thing that many games have effectively been turned into cross-platform experiences through the hard work of the Linux community.
The Foot in the Door
Linux evangelists from all schools of Linux evangelism should not overlook the value of helping someone get a foot in the door of Linux. The gamer who initially considers Linux because he or she is frustrated with some aspect of Windows may, after trying Linux and having positive experiences with it, take an interest in some issues that he or she would have never considered while on Windows or Mac OS. However, if the issue of games are non-negotiable and the person is not persuaded that Linux is yet adequate for his or her gaming needs, he or she will miss out on the experiences that I described. Considering the issue of games practically is the first step to helping some Windows gamers take their own first step.
Ideas Regarding Games and Linux Going Forward
Linux proponents should consider compatibility tools as a form of decentralization. That a game was made exclusively for Windows is not a bad thing in and of itself. If the game is worth playing on Windows, it is worth making it playable on Linux. If people enjoy the game on Linux, the company behind the game may at least contemplate producing a native Linux version of its games down the line.
Linux proponents must take the concerns of Linux-curious gamers seriously. That is, they should take the time to understand the concerns and determine the best solution to address the facts of particular cases.
In some cases, as Unixsheikh noted, a serious gamer may not be able to play his or her favorite games on Linux. So long as that is the case, that gamer will not entirely abandon Windows for Linux. However, in cases like these, demystifying dual-booting Linux and Windows for ordinary users would be helpful. While I have never tried it, Q4OS Linux distribution’s process for installing Linux on a Windows system is something for others to emulate.
While Valve’s interest in Linux has been a boon to gaming on Linux, the Linux community must prioritize working on tools that do not depend on Steam in order to ensure that ordinary Linux gamers have the most powerful user-friendly tools at their disposal to run their favorite Windows titles no matter where the titles were purchased (see Lutris for a terrific example).
Finally, while free and open source games developed primarily for Linux are still niche, the best examples of these projects should be made available to Windows gamers. In this way, the games can serve as an intelligible point of reference for Windows gamers who take an interest in Linux.
Before concluding, I thank Unixsheikh for his interesting essay. While I disagreed with his views on compatibility layers for Windows games, his arguments gave me the idea for a a prompt on gaming on Linux.
So long as only a small number of gamers run Linux as their daily drivers, the only incentive that most game companies and developers have to create Linux native versions of their games will be to work well on Steam’s various consoles. The issue is not that Wine and Proton vitiate the need for native Linux games, it is that there are not enough gamers who run Linux at all. There are so few Linux gamers at this time compared to Windows gamers that one cannot even say there is a chicken and egg issue.
If Linux proponents want to see more games made for Linux, it will necessary for there to be more gamers running Linux. Gamers will not try Linux unless they can play their favorite games on Linux. For the foreseeable future, the ability of gamers to play their favorite games on Linux will depend on the continued development of Wine and Proton.
Valve is facilitating conditions for more games to be compatible with Linux. This in turn makes Linux a more realistic option for some, but not all, gamers. Linux proponents and organizations should acknowledge that this is good and continue to work on developing their own compatibility tools.
No matter how refined Proton and Wine become, native Linux games are a better for Linux gamers than running Windows games via other tools. There are entirely practical reasons that this is the case that do not require a discussion on Windows’ ubiquity in the gaming sphere. But these compatibility tools are absolutely necessary, albeit not entirely sufficient, for creating the conditions in the world of computer gaming that will cause more game companies and developers to consider whether creating and maintaining native Linux games is a financially worthwhile endeavor.
Let us work to decentralize computer gaming experiences.