Video Gamers Get Their Woodstock

Cologne, Germany There were plenty of reasons to go to Cologne's convention centre last week: jet pack flights, beach volleyball, ATV races, motorcycle stunts, performances by skateboarder Tony Hawk and German band Die Toten Hosen. But what really brought in the crowds were the video games.

Nearly a quarter of a million people, almost half from other countries, crowded into the expansive Koelnmesse last week for Gamescom, a soon-to-be annual celebration of video games in Germany.

The 245,000 visitors to a city of about one million spent much of the event's five days checking out more than 150 video games and 458 companies from 31 countries.

"We are very proud of the premiere of Gamescom," said Olaf Wolters, managing director of the organisation running the event. "It fulfilled all our objectives right away and is the largest game trade fair in the world. Computer and video games are so attractive that our industry is breaking all records despite the economic crisis."

The show took over a massive 120,000 square metres of the convention centre, dividing up the video game publishers over four indoor warehouse spaces. Inside these halls, publishers turned the areas for their video games into amusement-like attractions.

Sony decorated one of their areas with fake grass and lounge chairs, and another with fake snow and gaming chairs designed to look like snowmobiles. In another section, an Audi TT was connected to hydraulics and a PlayStation 3 so gamers could climb inside and play Gran Turismo 5 in a moving car. Every few hours a different section of the booth was overrun with tracers, a half dozen men scrambling up, over and around the booth's two-storey tall walls.

Activision set up a full half-pipe vert ramp in another hall and brought famous skateboarder Tony Hawk in to perform tricks in front of a live audience to promote their upcoming Tony Hawk: Ride game.

Sega had gamers climb into a bigger than life snow globe to try out their upcoming Winter games title, while Capcom allowed gamers to suit up and ride a 180km/h vertical airstream to promote their upcoming jetpack shooter, Dark Void.

And every booth seemed to have a stage of one sort or another, from EA's massive Beatles set up for The Beatles: Rock Band to DJ Rapstar's, Guitar Hero and DJ Hero's mammoth performance stages.

And in the middle of it all were those quarter of a million fans, there not just to play games but to celebrate the culture of gaming. Some came dressed in ornate costumes as their favourite video game characters, othera came as part of fan groups, like the Gran Turismo Driving Club.

It's this broader look at video gaming that helps to separate Gamescom, formerly an event held in Leipzig, Germany, from the US Electronic Entertainment Expo and Japan's Tokyo Gaming Show.

At Gamescom, unlike those other shows, the video games don't take centre stage, the people do. How else can one explain the free areas set up to entertain the public with everything but video games?

The Outdoor Event area took over a fairly large parking lot, transforming it into, among other things, a sand-filled beach complete with volleyball court and live DJ, an ATV area loaded with woodchips and dirt, a parcour obstacle course and an area where people could watch riders perform stunts on motorcycles.

The convention even hosted it's own camping area, about a 10 minute walk from the show, where people could set up tents by the Rhine River and hang out during the nights of the show.

The days of Gamescom were filled with milling crowds of friendly gamers, from young children to grandparents. The nights with long talks of gaming, music and sports.

The show feels like the beginning of something bigger, a celebration of a growing culture, one that embraces video games but isn't necessarily defined by them.

Well Played is a weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.


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