Spotify’s curated playlists try to offer a little something for everyone. Are you looking for music that will help you sleep, run, or wallow in your own misery? There’s a Spotify-created playlist for that. So it’s not surprising that the service would suggest some music for people to turn on while they’re playing video games — but it is shocking just how bad those playlists are, and how hard they turn into the most boring, outdated cliches of what people who play video games like — or are like.
The company launched its musical portal for gaming last year. Among guest playlists from outlets like The Verge’s sister site Polygon, or music from actual video games, the section is filled thematic playlists like “Rage Quit,” “Heavy Gamer,” and “Like A (Final) Boss.” If those titles sound cringe-worthy to you, it doesn’t get better when you click through to the songs.
According to Spotify, the preferred music of gamers is a mix of tracks from angsty favorites Disturbed, Limp Bizkit, Atreyu, System of a Down, Breaking Benjamin, and dozens of other rock bands creeping into obscurity. But if you look at what people are actually listening to in “Top Gaming Tracks,” home to “all the most-added tracks in gaming playlists on Spotify,” you’re a lot more likely to hear Ed Sheeran or that Zayn and Taylor Swift track from the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack. The late ‘90s to ‘00s popularity of musicians like Limp Bizkit or Breaking Benjamin does more to reveal an aging curatorial hand than the predilections of your average 2017-era game enthusiast.
The imagery Spotify uses to reach out to its “gamer” audience is equally dated and tone-deaf. In one teaser video for the gaming section, a player sporting a mohawk destroys her couch cushions in a fit of anger. In another, a man slathered with spaghetti sauce attempts to slurp down noodles in slow motion while keeping his concentration on his screen. This kind of marketing — the irrationally angry gamer, the sloppy gamer — has been the defining image of people who play video games for years, despite their increasing diversity.
Video game ads have a long and sexist history that revolved around objectifying women and treating male players like neanderthal dimwits who saw the opposite sex as a foreign species. As recently as 2013, the wanna-be hit console Ouya ill-advisedly tried to pander to this demographic when it encouraged players to “GET SOME” of a game about a young child dying of cancer. The stock image of a basement-dwelling Mountain Dew swiller as the face of gaming fades a little more each year, and how mainstream companies cultivate this image is important.
If you want to create a list of enjoyable music for playing video games, just make a list of enjoyable music
Listen, if you want to create a list of enjoyable music for playing video games, just make a list of enjoyable music. Look no further than video game series like Grand Theft Auto, that have excellent licensed soundtracks that are presented as a varied array of radio stations you can listen to while cruising around the city. They mix together current and old songs from a wide range of music, from Def Leppard, Snoop Dogg, and INXS to Rihanna, Lorde, and Toro y Moi. Players aren’t bound to one genre or sound, and can scroll through stations at their leisure to best match their interest at the moment.
Spotify has yet to provide this sort of variety and curation in its gaming section, or truly understand its audience. There is no one genre of music that defines someone who plays video games, the same way that there is no one type of game that appeals to all players, or no single movie genre that appeals to all moviegoers. If Spotify is going to position itself as an authority on taste for gamers, it needs to demonstrate a better grasp on them, instead of pandering to an imagined audience sprinkled in Cheetos dust.