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Partners in life, business

'Intentional family' forms video game company

Shortly after 7 each morning, Eleanor Robinson puts on a pot of coffee in her kitchen and sits down and reads the newspaper with her husband, Earle. Within minutes, they're usually joined by John Bannick or David Brown or Cynthia Geller or Marcia Morrison.
There is no one single surname on the doorbell of the 30-room Victorian house that overlooks the North River in Salem. No matter, say the six people who have lived together for much of the last 20 years. "What we are is an intentional family," explained Geller, a Detroit -born actress and political fund-raiser.
More than 20 years ago, before the Internet and the widespread use of personal computers and video games, the six met while playing the tabletop, fantasy role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons. By 1989, they were in the middle of what would become a 12-year Dungeons & Dragons game, and the core players of the group decided that it made sense to buy a house together.
Since then, they have moved from their original house in Somerville to Salem, endured the death of a founding member of their group, grown gray together, and, last month, launched 7-128 Software, at 7128.com.
The company's name refers to seven people living together inside of Route 128 and counts John Bannick's wife, Barbara, a librarian and house member who died six years ago.
The company sells puzzles and downloadable video games that contain no sexual or violent content and can also be played by those who are deaf and blind. The games, aimed at baby boomers and the senior gaming market, range from $5 to $10.
"They don't want violence or sex," Eleanor Robinson said of the gamers 7128.com hopes to attract. "They want family-friendly games that they are perfectly content to play with their kids."
To date, the group has produced about 60 games and is issuing a new release every Thursday. Most of the games are set among mansions in Newport, R.I., in the 1890s. When players need help in solving the games' mysteries, they click on an image of Inspector Cyndi (Geller), a Viennese police detective.
Like Geller, all of the housemates have a role in creating the games. Bannick and Eleanor Robinson helped create the computer programs; Earle Robinson, a former Army officer, did the photography; Brown, a retired social worker, did the writing and research; and Morrison, a former rock 'n' roll singer, helped with the audio.
After five years of planning and about 18 months of programming, filming, and storyboarding -- many of the stories were conceived over dinner or a couple of glasses of wine -- the business launched on Jan. 1. The group has relied on word-of-mouth advertising, sending e-mails about the website to their large coterie of fellow gamers, and so far, the six are satisfied with the response.
"We're already making money," said Eleanor Robinson, 72, a former teacher and Marine officer who lives on the second floor of the Salem house with her husband. The Robinson s, like the rest of their partners and housemates, say their business goal dovetails with the co-op's collective goals: "We want to make enough money to pay our mortgage," said Eleanor Robinson.
While they have separate apartments inside the house, the residents nearly always leave their doors open, attend group meals frequently, and pool their expenses, with some paying more according to net worth.
While group members often travel together -- including a sojourn to London for a month -- they say one of the biggest benefits of living together is knowing that they won't die alone. As they age, caring for one another has become paramount for all of the house members. "We don't want to be alone, basically," said Earle Robinson, who has been married to Eleanor for 49 years and has three children and eight grandchildren. "It's a big, cold world out there if you're alone. It's easier to do things for other people than have things done for you."
Several years ago, the group came together to support Bannick's wife when she was diagnosed with brain cancer. "They'd feed her, dress her, and just be there and sit with her," Bannick said. "Before she died, Barbara said, 'I feel like my family is taking care of me.' "
After Bannick's wife died, his 89-year-old mother, Marjorie, moved in and lived another three years with the support of the group.
This type of support is comforting to the Robinsons and their children. "Our children are quite happy with it," said Eleanor Robinson. "They don't have to worry that Mom and Dad are getting older and are alone. They know that there's somebody that will get a hold of them if they need them."
Besides the third floor, where the business office is set up, the most likely place for the housemates to meet is the Robinsons' second-floor apartment. Their apartment is the fastest way for Bannick to get to his top-floor office, and for Geller to get to the laundry room. It's also where long impromptu conversations take place and where house meetings are held. At the meetings, they discuss house finances and maintenance, and clear up disputes.
"If there is an argument, we are able to back off, sit down, and settle it," Geller said. "You can't live in that kind of proximity with a lot of people without there being disagreements, and sometimes big disagreements. It's like a marriage: You have to be sufficiently committed to the relationship that you want to solve the problems."
House members also say that, besides trust, their ability to communicate effectively has allowed them to stay together and start a business. "I'd say the biggest challenge is maintaining the schmooze," Eleanor Robinson said. "Communication is the number one thing. You have to make sure that everybody's in the loop, everybody's consulted, everybody has air time. We do that with our house, and with our business. The lifestyle and the work style are absolutely identical."
Steven Rosenberg can be reached at rosenberg@globe.com.
Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.
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