Over the years, Chris Pender has worn many hats. After growing up in Akron, Ohio, the now-Eugene resident has worked as an actor, an acrobat, a taxi driver, a construction worker — even a fisherman in Alaska. But Pender’s interest in life makes him stand out the most.
He is not just interested in life. He is interested in Life, or the Game of Life, the board game created in 1860 by Milton Bradley. The Game of Life was Bradley’s very first board game, selling 45,000 copies by the end of its first year. In the game, players travel through existence by spinning a small wheel, landing on spaces and getting jobs, making money, finding a marriage partner, and having kids. The game ends when players reach the end of the board and “retire.”
An interesting fact: The American Association of Retired Persons once criticized the game for ending at retirement. They argued that one can have a fulfilling life long after retirement.
But, one might argue, this is all fun and games. Why get serious? But for Pender, part of the fun about actual life is how it is not all fun and games. And that is what makes life interesting.
As a child, Pender played Bradley’s Game of Life and loved it. He said,
“I think it tapped into my interest in acting in that you put on someone else’s shoes.”
But even as a child, Pender wanted more from the game. He first started thinking about how the game could be more realistic when people he knew became Vietnam War draftees. When the concept of war entered into his understanding of the world, he had his initial idea to make a different version of Bradley’s game.
“The first idea for the game came to me as a child. The first idea was War. Vietnam was going on when I was a child. I have older sisters and their boyfriends were being drafted. So as a child playing Life I thought, ‘That would be interesting in the game — what if you are going down the road in your little car and then you are drafted and end up in Vietnam?’ I was getting older and was worried about being drafted myself.”
As he grew up, he engaged in those growing-up rituals we refer to as sex and drugs. Again, he started thinking.
“Late in my life I had sex and the idea came back to me, ‘What if sex was in the game?’ Then I took drugs and I thought, ‘That would be interesting. Everybody takes drugs, whether it is marijuana, alcohol or sugar.’ Drugs are everywhere and should be in a game called Life.”
So during the Christmas season of 1998, Pender made his own game. He calls it “The Game of Real Life.” In Pender’s game, each player flips a coin to see if they are born male or female. Then players roll a die to see what economic class they will be born into. Finally, each player rolls a die to see how healthy their characters start. As players go through Pender’s game, everything you love (and hate) about life can occur to you. You get happiness from running through ocean waves or sadness from being orphaned. You can get healthier by eating organic foods. If you are aborted, you get reincarnated. You can have sex, which leads to happiness or pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.
While Bradley’s Game of Life ends with retirement, Pender’s Game of Real Life has its own convictions. The player with the most happiness at the end of the game wins. When you lose all your health points, you lose. And finally, money does have a significant role in the game.
Pender started selling the Game of Real Life in 1998 at the Holiday Market in Eugene. He said,
“I just sold at Christmas for the first few years then I tried to sell during the year. I was worried because a board game is a winter product but people continued to buy the game during the summer.”
While Pender still lives in Eugene, he now commutes to Portland on the weekends to sell his game. Having sold over 20,000 copies of his game now, he believes he has saturated the Eugene market. He explains,
“In Eugene I am old news so I needed a new venue and Portland Saturday Market was a perfect next step.”
But even with commuting to Portland, Pender believes living in Eugene is central to who he is and how his game has taken form. In particular, the arts and craft community here inspired him to make the game from hand, which has enabled him to produce the game much more economically. Pender says,
“I couldn’t have made the game without Eugene. I am not much of a spiritual person but when I was making the game everything seemed to fall into place. I moved to Eugene and loved Saturday Market. I even tried selling jewelry at Saturday Market first. But I believe if I had stayed in NYC or Ohio it never would have occurred to me to hand-make the game. Getting the game manufactured costs at least $10,000 which I never had. But I started this game with $2000.”
Years after his first sales at the Holiday Market, Pender’s business is going strong. While his customers are typically from Eugene and Portland, he recently sold a game to someone in New Zealand.
And winning the Game of Real Life by being the happiest? To Pender, that is a personal philosophy he has developed due to his family.
“My parents were the 50’s parents. My dad was a hard working minor executive in a corporation and my mom did all the work raising the children but she was very artsy so she would take her little kids to the art museum in Cleveland. I never saw my dad and got the impression he never had fun.”
For Pender, having fun is at the center of both life and Real Life — or as he puts it, “enjoying life now.”