Video Gamers Get Their Woodstock

Cologne, Germany - There were plenty of reason to go to Cologne's convention center 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 1 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 organization 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 1.3 million square-feet of the convention center, 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 traceurs, a half dozen men scrambling up, over and around the booth's two-story tall walls.

Activision set up a full half-pipe vert ramp in another hall and brought famous skateboard 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 180 KMH 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 favorite video game characters, other 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 U.S.'s Electronic Entertainment Expo and Japan's Tokyo Gaming Show.

At Gamescom, unlike those other shows, the video games don't take center 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 ten minutes 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.

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