I'm surprised how good my MacBook Air M2 is at gaming — but it’s being held back

an image of Total War: Warhammer 3 running on a MacBook Air M2
(Image credit: Future)

It’s long been known that when it comes to gaming, Apple’s Mac machines are pretty much useless compared to Windows PCs. Sure, you can game on macOS, but your options are limited, especially if you have no interest in Apple Arcade

But I don’t see why that should be the case. Especially now that we have Apple Silicon chips and machines like the mighty MacBook Pros. 

Of course, Apple tends to market its laptops and desktops towards general users or professionals; for example, the MacBook Air M1 is an every-person machine, while the powerful Pro laptops are aimed at creative professionals or people compiling code. Gaming may get a cursory nod in an Apple presentation, but it seems more of a plug for Apple Arcade than a touting of true gaming power. Sure, the Mac mini M2 Pro had a gaming element but that was for last-generation games like No Man’s Sky or Resident Evil Village.

MacBook Air M2: A breath of fresh Air

an image of Total War: Warhammer 3 running on a MacBook Air M2

(Image credit: Future)

But I really don’t think this should be the case. Last year I got a MacBook Air M2, and not only has it impressed me as an overall laptop, but I was surprised that it could handle gaming.

Granted, I wasn’t zipping around the streets of Night City in Cyberpunk 2077, but the M2 chip could run Total War: Warhammer 3, a game that can challenge my somewhat powerful gaming PC. I wasn't getting screaming frame rates, but the grand strategy game was playable.

Bouncing into less demanding but still brilliant games like Disco Elysium and Divinity Original Sin 2, the MacBook Air M2 ran them like a dream.

What’s super impressive here is I was doing this without having the Air plugged into a power outlet. Yes, it got warm and I’d likely see some CPU throttling the longer I gamed, but I could run critically-acclaimed games on a laptop I can hold in just two fingers.

I then went into my Steam library to have a look at what other games I could throw at my Air. That's when the disappointment struck.

There were numerous games, old and new, that were flagged as incompatible with macOS and the Apple M2 chip. This was frustrating as I know the M2 would easily run the likes of Skyrim or Dishonored 2; yes, these aren’t cutting-edge games, but they are brilliant and would be a joy to play on a slim laptop with a gorgeous display.

Power left to sour

an image of Total War: Warhammer 3 running on a MacBook Air M2

(Image credit: Future)

Apple’s M-series chips are arguably some of the most exciting slices of silicon that have popped up in recent years. They offer plenty of CPU and GPU power on a single chip, as well as impressive power efficiency. But for gaming, I feel the silicon is being let down by Apple’s software and interoperability.

Apple’s Metal API appears to be a capable graphics wrangler, but developers need to make games for it. That isn’t likely to be appealing when Macs aren’t seen as viable gaming machines. Apple could adopt the likes of the open-source Vulkan API into its M chips, which could make coding games for macOS a lot easier and avoid much in the way of dedicated programming for the platform. But Apple hasn’t done this for reasons that aren’t clear to me.

In comparison, the Valve Steam Deck offers impressive gaming performance for a Linux-based handheld PC, in part because its Proton compatibility layer helps PC games run well on its Linux-based operating system. I see no reason why Apple’s software engineers couldn't make something like a Proton for macOS that could open up M2 Mac machines for much wider gaming potential. 

So it’s a shame something like this hasn’t happened, as my colleague Tony Polanco noted in his MacBook Pro 16-inch 2023 review, the power of the M2 Max chip when properly brought to bear on compatible games is seriously impressive. Yet the lack of widespread compatibility kind of leaves that power at the door when it comes to gaming.

However, I’m hoping things will change. Gaming editor Marshall Honorof recently attended a gaming-centric Apple event where Cupertino’s crew showed off The Medium, a proper next-gen game, running on macOS. This is a promising sign that Apple may finally be taking a serious look at macOS gaming.

And I really hope so, because if Apple can get more games playing nicely with macOS and the M chips, it would be a bit of a game-changer that could force the likes of Intel and AMD to take a close look at how their laptop-grade chips handle gaming.

On top of all this, Apple has a rich developer ecosystem, and if more creative types could tap into the power of Apple Silicon, then we could see Macs potentially become a true gaming platform fueled by creativity and high-quality hardware. I’m crossing my fingers.

Roland Moore-Colyer

Roland Moore-Colyer a Managing Editor at Tom’s Guide with a focus on news, features and opinion articles. He often writes about gaming, phones, laptops and other bits of hardware; he’s also got an interest in cars. When not at his desk Roland can be found wandering around London, often with a look of curiosity on his face.