From gambling to one of the 1960s’ most popular games, Pinball Wizard, this playlist features songs about a wide variety of games. Not all of them are literal, though. We’ve mixed the list up with plenty of tracks dealing with “love games” as well, and in songwriter Peter Gabriel’s opinion, the “silly games” adults play.
Games Without Frontiers – Peter Gabriel
“Jeux sans frontieres.” This phrase is repeated during parts of the song, and it’s French for ‘Games Without Frontiers,’ the title to this 1980 Gabriel track. It’s a critical commentary on the immaturity of adults and the idiotic trendy movements they get caught up in. When America boycotted the Olympics held in Moscow, he was inspired to pen the single.
Pinball Wizard – The Who
One of The Who’s signature tracks, ‘Pinball Wizard’ was an early contribution to the musical subgenre that would ultimately become “Rock Opera.” Released in ’69, the story follows a young boy who can’t hear or see but somehow manages to become a pinball champion. His surprising talent gives him a taste of stardom. In the ’70s, bands like Queen would go on to make their own iconic contributions to the rock opera genre.
Love Is a Losing Game – Amy Winehouse
Appearing on her critically acclaimed album Back to Black, soul singer Amy Winehouse wrote ‘Love is a Losing Game’ with producer Mark Ronson while going through a tough period with her then-boyfriend. They would ultimately get back together after the album was released, but at the time of recording, he had left Amy to return to his previous girlfriend. The intensely vulnerable song features Winehouse candidly singing about love-gone-wrong.
Wicked Game – Chris Isaak
“It’s strange what desire will make foolish people do.” Written about a late-night rendezvous Isaak agreed to, ‘Wicked Game’ explores the more dangerous sides of late-night hookups. He wrote the tune fast, while one of his lovers was on the way to his house. By the time she got there, he had the song complete and played it for her, though she was supposedly a bit disappointed he was more focused on writing than her. Tough audience!
Video Games – Lana Del Rey
Flowing between images of failed relationships and snapshots of how she wished the romances would have progressed, ‘Video Games’ was singer-songwriter Lana Del Rey’s debut single. After releasing an album under another stage name, Lizzy Grant, that didn’t do well on the charts, her management team decided to shake up her persona, with hints of old Hollywood in the mix.
Domino Dancing – Pet Shop Boys
While the song was born from a series of nights playing Dominos in the Caribbean, Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Domino Dancing’ took on a more meaningful story during production, when the lyrics turned into a tale about a complicated romance stricken with jealous partners. Dominos, a game featuring a series of toppling pieces, are a common symbol used in songwriting to help signify a relationship that’s breaking down.
The Game of Love – Santana
In 2002 Santana released one of his most popular albums in America, Shaman. The first single off the record featured a duet with pop singer Michelle Branch called ‘The Game of Love.’ The lighthearted track describes the wave of emotions one feels early on in relationships when they turn into something more. Other duets on the album include the hit song ‘Smooth’ featuring Matchbox 20 frontman Rob Thomas.
Play the Game – Queen
Written after his breakup with partner Tony Bastin, Freddie Mercury wrote the reflective ‘Play the Game’ with the intent of looking back at a former relationship and coming to terms with it. Up until the point of recording the album the tune is featured on, Queen stayed away from electronic-sounding instruments like the synthesizer. As they got more and more into the recording process, they incorporated the trendy sound when they could. ‘Play the Game’ was the first time they’d use synth as part of the instrumentation.
Tumbling Dice – The Rolling Stones
Keith Richards’ distinctive guitar work holds down this fast-moving track about a hard-partying bachelor who can’t be tied down. Originally titled ‘Good Time Woman,’ Jagger wasn’t pleased with the lyrics so the Stones didn’t release it. But when he struck up a convo with his housekeeper one day about playing dice, he rewrote the track using gambling terminology to drive the lyrical story.
Love Game – Lady Gaga
Released during a slew of number one hits including ‘Paparazzi,’ Lady Gaga’s ‘Love Game’ is an unapologetically erotic take that is part glitz and glamour, part underground New York. Gaga had fun in mind while writing the track, trying not to take the message of the song too seriously. Though her label was worried it was too “raunchy” to release, it resonated with fans and became another chart-topping release.
Monopoly – Ariana Grande and Victoria Monét
Pop star Ariana Grande teamed up with best friend and longtime collaborator Victoria Monet for this playful track about their friendship. The symbolic nature of the song’s title references the popular board game Monopoly, which features players buying and selling properties and collecting cash.
Let the Games Begin – AJR
This pop-party track features DJ AJR describing a wild night with friends in which he keeps the antics going through the morning. The song’s title, ‘Let the Games Begin,’ comes from ancient Greece. Rulers used to recite the phrase just before the original Olympic games kicked off. With his track, AJR is symbolically comparing his good-time endurance to that of an athlete.
Pac Man Fever – Buckner & Garcia
What started out as a fun jingle written in jest turned into a top ten hit for songwriting duo Buckner & Garcia. Their tune ‘Pac- Man Fever,’ written after discovering the popular ’80s arcade game, scored them tons of other work after its catchy melody helped it gain local attention. CBS loved the song so much they commissioned the duo for a full album focused solely on songs about video games.
Nintendo Game – Alessia Cara
A song about the complexities of relationships, Alessia Cara almost didn’t include ‘Nintendo Game’ on her album, The Pains of Growing, but her brother convinced her otherwise. The pensive tune relates the struggles couples face in romantic relationships to that of video games, with each lover strategizing and treating different points of the relationship like a new level to defeat.
Games People Play – Joe South
This philosophical track won songwriter Joe South Grammy awards for both best contemporary song and song of the year. The single finds South reflecting on the deceitful nature many possess. He’s saddened by the realization, wondering why people don’t live a life of honesty and charity given the finite nature of human existence.
Simon Says – 1910 Fruitgum Co.
In contrast to much of the heavier music of the times coming from bands like The Jimi Hendrix Experience and The Beatles’ new sound, 1910 Fruitgum Company focused on releasing “bubblegum” singles focusing on the lighter side of life. Their tune ‘Simon Says’ soon became a hit after it was released, and it chronicles the popular kid’s game where a leader calls out “commands” and kids have to follow suit.
Pool Hall Richard – Faces
“The pool hall king is hustlin’ you.” A single straight out of an old jukebox resting in a dive bar saloon, ‘Pool Hall Richard’ was released in ’73 by Rod Stewart-led group, Faces. The in-your-face track tells a rousing tale of a veteran hustler who takes people for a ride while boldly displaying his legendary skills at the billiards game, pool.
Little Games – The Yardbirds
A coming-of-age story, this Yardbirds track was the title single off their final album together. The album in its entirety is one fit for any electric guitar lover. ‘Little Games’ centers around a boy becoming a young man and wanting to trade in his adolescent toys for new, flashier ones like a fast car to help attract the ladies.