The perils of modern lego
Update 26 Nov 2014 – I’m very pleased that this post has been referenced by Justin Parkinson’s piece on the BBC News site ‘Has the imagination disappeared from Lego?‘, but I fear he may have misunderstood (or misrepresented) what I say about instructions.
The blogger Chris Swan argues that instructions marked the start of a decline.
Read on for the full skinny…
TL;DR – instructions aren’t the problem, they’re a good and necessary part of all sets beyond basic boxes of bricks, the problem is sets that only make one thing (like a dragon or something licensed from a movie).
Back to the original post…
I must have got my first Lego when I was about 3 or 4. It was pretty basic stuff – mostly 4×2 blocks and a handful of 2×2 blocks. I remember building a house out of it, and being shown by my mum to overlap the bricks to make a strong wall rather than building straight towers that would easily fall.
I’ve remained a Lego fan all of my life, buying some of the earliest ‘Technical Lego’ (now Technic) sets, and getting the first Mindstorms set shortly after launch. Even though the Technical sets came with detailed instructions to make various cars and other vehicles the real joy was always in modifying things and creating new stuff from scratch. Bringing multiple sets together meant more variety and bigger projects, and when Mindstorms came along I gave myself the challenge of making stuff that could be controlled over the web, blending physical construction with software engineering.
More like Airfix
I also loved making scale models (mostly of planes and warships) when I was a kid. At one stage there was a promotion run by Tudor Crisps (which I think was a local brand in the North East of England) to collect vouchers to send in for Airfix kits – my dad bought them by the box load at the local cash and carry so we could collect all of the sets. Modern Lego is I think more like Airfix for two reasons:
- Each set only makes one thing – whether that’s a spaceship or monster or whatever.
- You don’t break it. I wasn’t the kind of kid who’d destroy their Airfix creations with pellet guns. The finished models were cherished, and I’d get very cross if anybody (usually my brother) damaged them. Some of my models still grace various nooks and crannies of my grandma’s house.
I’ve read criticism elsewhere relating to the single outcome issue – that it harms creativity because kids have to colour in between the lines rather than making their own lines.
I’m just starting to see the damage of the second issue. I passed on my Technical Lego and Mindstorms sets to my son, and also bought an extension kit for the Mindstorms to make fairground rides (which seemed like a good mix of the old and new approaches). The first ride was a big hit with both of my kids, and they enjoyed reprogramming it to spin at different speeds etc. But it hasn’t been taken apart to make one of the other rides. I think it’s now clear to me why nothing much emerged from the Technical sets (the instructions are still intact, but hidden away in the boxes, and all of the parts got mixed up years ago and sorted by size/colour rather than which set they came from).
Why did this happen?
It’s pretty clear that Lego needed to do something about the impending expiry of its key patent around the bricks, and the licensing arrangements for hot properties like Star Wars give it a lot of stickiness with fans young and old. They’ve also had some (mixed) success with their own new brands.
Single purpose sets also drive a lot more purchases than sets that get rebuilt into different configurations. I considered myself quite a Lego fan, but only had one giant box of regular Lego, and three Technical sets. My own kids must have been bought at least an order of magnitude more.
What can be done?
I was chuffed to see some photos of Lego towers built out of some Duplo I got for my Nephew last year, and I think part of the answer is to start out with generic sets so that creativity can develop alongside of construction.
I’m not sure whether this means that generic sets should be preferred over single model sets, but I certainly think time should be dedicated to creative construction (and destruction).
I also suspect that Technic is somewhat overlooked these days, but with sets suitable for 8 year olds it’s probably good to have some alongside the other (sub)brands.
Lego for me was always about creativity, remaking and improving on existing designs. Those things don’t happen with sets that are designed to build a model of a single thing. But that’s not the only problem – Lego taught me the art of creative destruction – the need to break something in order to make something better. Single outcome sets encourage preservation rather than destruction, and sadly that makes them less useful, less educational (and in my opinion less fun). Good old generic Lego (and the more sophisticated Technic sets), with endless possibilities on offer, haven’t gone away, they’ve just been drowned in a sea of marketing for other brands.
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Tags: construction, creativity, design, Lego, Mindstorms, model, Technic, technical