COLOGNE, GERMANY - For one week a year a very different sort of campsite forms along Cologne's pebbled shores of the Rhine river.
Tucked between the fourth largest convention center in the world and the towering, majestic Cologne Cathedral, more than 3,000 people set up a small town of tents, camp chairs, bonfires and video games each year.
They are a growing number of campers drawn to the annual Gamescom, the largest video game show in the world, who decide to forgo the comfort and cost of hotels for several days of outdoor living among a group of fellow gamers.
The official Gamescom campgrounds have showers, bathrooms and only cost 30 euros a night. And this year the site saw a boom in campers.
"This year we have 50 percent more campers coming than last year," said Inga Merkina, 26, who works the campground each year. "We have really good reviews. We always have the same team working here and we know some of the campers and we try to be very polite and help them with everything we can."
That hospitality, the prime location, and the low cost, all seem to contribute to the camp's growing success. It's also a chance for gamers to hang out and share their day's adventures with like-minded people.
It's Friday night and the show has been open to the public now for two days. The campsite, recently soaked with drenching rain, is mired in sodden grass and muddy puddles, but that hasn't seemed to dampen the mood among the campers.
A motley assortment of tents stretch off into the distance, past a fenced off complex of rope ladders and ziplines, tracing the Rhine's course for at least a ten minute walk. Campers continue to pour in as I make my way through the campsite, some carry all of their gear neatly packed in backpacks, other hoist giant fishing poles, air mattresses or rolling suitcases.
Despite doubling in size, the ground for campers is filling up quickly as the setting sun turns the sky above the distant soot-black 500-foot-tall spires of the cathedral first a sherbet orange and then a fiery red. Rabbits scamper in the few open grass fields still free of campers. Smoke drifts in the wind from hundreds of small campfires.
The camping grounds are surrounded by chain-link fencing to prevent non-campers from disturbing those who make the area a temporary home. Just before this enclosure, an entertainment areas surrounds a lone basketball court. It's here that camp-goers can mingle while sitting by a massive bonfire, play basketball or table tennis, use a trailer converted into showers or grab a bite to eat from vendors.
Lucas Porz, 19, and a friend are sitting by the basketball court, watching a handful of people toss a basketball back and forth. Porz, who brought his Gameboy and phone for gaming in his tent, tells me they drove six hours from southern Germany to come to the show. They're staying at the campsite because all of the hotels were booked.
Porz says that at night, folks in their tents need to settle down by 10 p.m. or they can hang out in the entertainment area.
Nearby a crowd forms around a projection television and the site's only video game system. They're watching four people play Mario Kart 64 on a Nintendo 64 game console from the 1990s.
"The camp is very cool, you can chill in this area get food and drink," Berhard Hocker, 21, tells me. "The little games are very fun. "
Merkina, not a gamer herself, says that the campers come from all over the world. Show officials says that more than 275,000 people from 40 countries attend Gamescom each year to check out the good, games and hardware, from 550 companies.
Groups gather around their cooking fires, around the match of Mario Kart. They huddle together talking softly and laughing. There is a sense of camaraderie that fills the swelling campgrounds as night sinks in and the tired thousands prepare for another day of video games.
Well Played is an internationally syndicated 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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