Summer Camp Heads to Cyberspace

Adults who miss marshmallow roasts, mess halls and cabin contests are virtually back in summer camp all over again.

Now in session: Nintendo's "Camp Hyrule," a cyber summer camp that promotes new games to nostalgic adults and video-game hounds alike.

"The majority (of our campers) are kids, but I have seen some adults who are as excited as the kids to participate," said Nintendo (search) public relations manager Anka Dolecki. "I guarantee you there are some people who are not working right now and the boss doesn't even know."

The weeklong free "camp," which this year has 6,000 registrants, allows hardcore Nintendo fans a sneak peek at its newest games.

The product previews for featured games -- such as Mario Kart (search) (go-karting), 1080 Avalanche (search) (snowboarding) and F-Zero (search) (car racing) -- are nestled in different areas of the campsite.

And Camp Hyrule has many nooks to investigate. Participants stay in virtual cabins, eat virtual food at the mess hall, explore the virtual forest and swim in a virtual lake. There's also an unseen prankster on the loose who causes trouble. The 10 cabin teams compete to fix the problems he creates.

Campers can play the "Marshmallow Roast" game, write ghost stories, design the cabin flag and submit camp song lyrics. There's even a "First Aid Hut" for hurt (aka technically challenged) campers.

"It portrays real camp fairly well," said one adult repeat Hyruler, who asked to be identified only by his screen name Mace_Starider. "I try to participate in all the activities. They earn points for my cabin and they're fun."

Starider, who has a flexible job schedule, said he never misses the twice-daily cabin strategy sessions and stays at Hyrule a minimum of four or five hours a day.

Other grown-up gamehounds like Devin T. Quinn were unfamiliar with Camp Hyrule, but intrigued by the concept.

"I think it's ridiculously hokey, but I would have gone for announcements about new products," said the 27-year-old from Brooklyn, N.Y., who works in FAO Schwarz's video game department.

Quinn said if he still had an office job, he'd have no qualms about making quick workday visits to his virtual cabin. But exploring cyberspace could never replace the spooky forest walks, Popsicle-stick birdhouses and other memories he has from his own real summer camp stints.

"No online camp experience is ever going to have the value that a real camp with real people and real trees has," he said.

Summer camp — the real kind — has actually seen an upswing over the past decade or so. Though 2003 attendance leveled, 6.2 million children went to camp this summer and the industry has seen steady annual growth, according to the National Camp Association (search).

Association Executive Director Jeffrey Solomon said the influence of video games — and the struggle to get kids outside to play instead — worries parents. A virtual camp might make the push for more active kids even trickier.

"I don't think it will impact (camp) enrollment, but it's a legitimate concern parents have: Are kids too easily losing themselves in these games," Solomon said. "The virtual games can only take you so far."

But for some kids whose parents don't have the finances or wherewithal to send them to summer camp, Camp Hyrule could be the next best thing.

"A lot of kids don't get the chance," Nintendo's Dolecki said. "This provides them with the opportunity."