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On LEGO Past and Present

May 30, 2012

I recently had the pleasure of assembling LEGO’s Ultimate Collector Series R2-D2 (set #10225), a gift I acquired for myself at the Lego Store in Rockefeller Center. The task, accomplished in about 4 hours with the enthusiastic help of my dear friends’ 7- and 9-year-old sons, had me ruminating on my own experiences with LEGO since I was a wee bairn.

I don’t really remember when I received my first LEGO set, or what it was. But I do remember having some of the iconic LEGO Space sets (such as #497, “Galaxy Explorer” and #6970 “Beta-1 Command Base”) as well as countless Basic, Town, Boat, Castle and Technic sets dating into the late-’80s. I had dozens of the little LEGO dudes, that smiling, yellow-faced little guy known as a “minifig,” and various accessories. To this day, my parents have in storage a large, 31-gallon plastic tub almost overflowing with all of the LEGOs accumulated by me and my brother. (This tub contains my favorite LEGO set of all time, a Technics #8855 Prop Plane, most of which is still assembled and hasn’t been touched in over 20 years.)

Hours upon hours of my childhood were spent building and creating with LEGO. When I got a new set, I would usually start with the instructions and build the set as intended. I might play with that for a few days, then try some of the alternate designs provided by LEGO on the back of the box or instruction booklet. (Full instructions for these alternates were rarely, if ever, provided; you really only had a few photos to go by, but I was usually able to figure it out.) Again, after a few days of play, the entire set would be disassembled and its parts would be incorporated into whatever amalgamated monstrosity popped into my head. My most ambitious LEGO endeavor, undertaken in 1988 with the help of my friend Tony, was an attempt to recreate, in minifig scale, the vehicles seen in the movie Aliens. Naturally, the project was abandoned about halfway through in favor of other pursuits (ah, capricious youth!) but not before we had finished an elaborate power-loader, half of the dropship, and most of the APC. We could have done it, by Jove! We had the pieces! We had the time! And that’s all you needed…

That was and is the beauty of LEGO. Everything was compatible with everything else. 99% of the pieces were generic and could be used in combination with any other piece. Sure, a few pieces were rare and had a specific purpose (these I kept in a separate bin), but for the most part you could build anything with anything.

But LEGO seems to have lost its way. Today’s best-selling LEGO sets are all licensed from famous movies: Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, and even The Avengers. Now, I’m not necessarily complaining about the licensing agreements LEGO has reached with these blockbuster properties. I’m actually happy to have access to the aforementioned, highly detailed R2-D2 model or the Ultimate Collector’s Millennium Falcon (#10179, and at 5195 pieces, the second-largest LEGO set ever made). My concern is how these sets are assembled. They aren’t made simply from available LEGO pieces. It looks like many of them use a lot of set-specific parts; parts that were either designed specifically for a particular set, or are screen-printed with graphics specific to a given vehicle or playset. Granted, there are still quite a few sets that don’t do this. Mrs. theGeek and I have a 3-foot-tall LEGO Eiffel Tower (#10181, 8th largest set!) in our living room, and if we had the space I’d totally get the Taj Mahal (#10189, the #1 largest set!).

Put simply, the creativity is slowly disappearing from LEGO sets. It is far more clever (and therefore more time-consuming) to make a good-looking Super Star Destroyer (#10221) out of available, generic LEGO bricks. Thus, instead, the set appears to be comprised of at least dozens of pieces that do not exist in any other set. As the development of new pieces becomes more specific, their utility and application outside the particular set is diminished. Perhaps I am being curmudgeonly, but who wants to build something with pieces emblazoned with graphics from the Millennium Falcon? This problem is not limited to the licensed sets. LEGO’s Ninjago line includes several playsets with pieces that really only work if you follow the instructions to the letter. Deviation from the included instructions, while not necessarily openly discouraged, is certainly not facilitated as it once was. I often worry that this direction can actually limit the imagination of the children who play with these sets. The idea of combining a huge pile of LEGOs into something LEGO never intended seems to be dying.

Perhaps I am speaking too soon, however. My friends’ 9-year-old (the one who helped me with my R2-D2) has taken great joy in recombining all of his various minifigs into new creations. When prompted (or not), he will speak at length about his new creations, having even imagined back-stories involving intergalactic warfare, ancient feuds, prophecies, and magical powers. Furthermore, whenever other friends bring their kids over to my house, creativity flows freely with other building toys such as my large set of Magnetix. Maybe I’m being alarmist and all is not lost.

Despite my reservations about LEGO’s deviation from the toy of my youth, I still believe it to be a great brand with a lot of potential. And creativity still abounds. One recent development is Cuusoo, LEGO’s crowdsourced community for the development of new sets. Think of it as Kickstarter for LEGO. You build whatever you want from available LEGO bricks, take some pictures, and pitch your idea on the Cuusoo site. Members of the community can then acknowledge support (and a willingness to buy if such a set existed, natch). If your idea reaches 10,000 supporters, it goes on to a committee that reviews the feasibility of releasing it as an official LEGO set. So far, only 3 sets have made it all the way to “Accepted” status: Shinkai 6500 (a Japanese deep-sea submersible), Hayabusa (a Japanese satellite launched in March, 2012; are we noticing a pattern here?), and my personal favorite, LEGO Minecraft. (An idea so perfectly suited to LEGO-fication I’m astonished it took this long to happen.) Naturally, some ideas have to be rejected despite reaching the requisite 10,000 supporters (including LEGO Serenity from Joss Whedon’s Firefly), due to licensing or branding issues. But the existence of Cuusoo goes a long way to assuaging my fears about the death of LEGO creativity.

Toys evolve, as does the way we play with them. However, deviating too far from the fundamental appeal of a toy can result in its premature death. I hope this doesn’t happen to LEGO. In many ways, I see LEGO as the perfect toy and I look forward to encouraging my kids to build to the limits of their imagination.

  1. Sean Gilroy permalink
    May 30, 2012 7:48 pm

    I am forced to disagree strenuously. Having assisted in building the majority of my kids’ (the aforementioned 7- and 9-year-olds, for anyone else reading this) Lego sets, I can assure you that pieces that are unique to the set they came with are pretty rare. Yeah, there are a shitload of weird pieces we didn’t have when we were kids, but you find the same ones in lots of different sets. And personally, when I get conscripted to “just build somethin’, Dad, anything, I don’t care,” I like to grab the weirdest looking pieces I can find and figure what I can make them into.

    • Paul Dmytrewycz permalink*
      May 30, 2012 8:19 pm

      I’m honestly gratified to hear this. I’m fully aware that I could be completely off-base. I admit that I don’t really have opportunity to “play” with LEGOs anymore. I only have the few sets; which I built and merely display. (The Eiffel Tower, by the way, used entirely garden-variety pieces.)

      Maybe there’s hope after all.

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