Battle Over Blocks
October 29, 2001 9:10 PM   Subscribe

Battle Over Blocks
These essays offer a thoughtful insight into the Lego bricks we grew up with, and how the toys have changed with the times to reflect an absence of creativity in our society. Features Jeff Bates, cofounder of slashdot.
posted by johnjreeve (25 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Thanks a lot for the link, John. The theme and corresponding essays showed a lot of potential for really interesting reading. Was I the only one who was disappointed by the content, however? Given how psyched I was about reading the pieces (for some reason), I ultimately ended up feeling unfulfilled. Perhaps it was the narrowness of the authors' respective visions...? I don't know.
posted by Marquis at 10:03 PM on October 29, 2001

it seems like a good launching point for a real discussion....

my sisters & I used to build a vast Lego city in the living room every Xmas, when we got new blocks. "windows? we don't need no steenkin' windows!" and I always used to take off the dorky boy-hair and pretend they were girls with blond hair in a bun.

sigh. I wish Mom hadn't gotten rid of all the Legos. (she thought my love for building houses would translate into a career in architecture. sure, mom.)

I'm gonna go dream about Legos, and post something deeper & more meaningful in the morning.
posted by epersonae at 10:08 PM on October 29, 2001

It seems that modern toys are no longer designed as a venue for creativity. They specify exactly what the toy is and what it should be used for.

Even modern Lego isn't the same as it used to be. The newer Lego kits contain three or four "special" blocks that snap together to make one thing. It used to be that even the smallest Lego kit could make five or six unique creations.

I watch kids playing and they just don't seem to have the same levels of creativity that I remember. If you leave a child in a room with wooden blocks, they might think about stacking them together, but that will be the limit of their play. The imaginative leap to make those blocks spaceships and monsters flying across an alien landscape just isn't there.

Perhaps this is what modern parenting and television produces, or perhaps I was just an odd child. I like to think I was an odd child because of the way I was brought up. I was left to discover creativity on my own. I was given the chance to explore it -- and Lego was one of my favourite ways to express my imagination.

Keep your Lego -- pass it on to your children.

...or just keep it for yourself :)
posted by Lionfire at 10:26 PM on October 29, 2001

I've heard this theory, that modern legos are a sign of reduced creativity in todays children. Can't remember's killing me.
Anyway, I just don't buy it. People 20 years from now will be just as creative. This is only a sign of increased greed on the part of the company that makes legos. They can sell one product, legos, or they can make a billion different kinds of legos and make more money.
Kids will be creative, with or without legos.
Lionfire, you're just hanging out with boring kids :)
posted by Doug at 10:49 PM on October 29, 2001

One thing - I think it's interesting that in the U.S. you refer to them as Legos -plural like trees, like toys, whereas in the UK we call it Lego - singular like water, like a medium. I don't know what it means, if anything, but it's interesting.

Another opportunity to demonstrate my advanced age: I was a toddler before Duplo (so I played with the teeny tiny bricks from day one); before people of any kind (I made people by sandwiching a four-block between two two blocks, the top-most of which was white, and since the boy with whom I most often built cities was black it was an issue even then); has anybody mentioned the main use for Lego - building giant vehicles and spaceships, filling them with left-over bricks and crashing them into each other? Instant chaos; I take the point about programming, since it was definitely an early lesson in goal-setting and problem solving and also working within budgets and if only I had ever been successful in transferring those skills to real life, I wouldn't be a bum now; I won a prize (a starter box of Lego, which, comsidering the huge box of it that I'd acquired by then was a bit like awarding a Fender Squier guitar to Eric Clapton) on the last day of the competition using only the bricks that had been left over by the other contestants. It was a model of the Loch Ness Monster. Long story; I was asked whether I'd mind my huge box of Lego going to my nephews and I agreed even though it was a wrench, so now I'm a sort of grown-up.
posted by Grangousier at 12:03 AM on October 30, 2001

Almost all of my lego (in Australia, we say 'lego' for the plural, too) was plain, multi-purpose bricks, half of them from when my mother was a young-un'. My sister, on the other hand, got new sets for Christmas, and a lot of those were specialised, or at least had specialised pieces along with the plain blocks. I think I prefered the old ones (teeth marks and all...).
posted by eoz at 1:01 AM on October 30, 2001

I think it's interesting that in the U.S. you refer to them as Legos -plural like trees, like toys, whereas in the UK we call it Lego

Well, actually they're "Lego bricks", Lego being the name of the company. The noun is pluralised, not its modifier.

Shortening it to "Lego" for a number of bricks is typically British. Like using "Hoover" instead of "Hoover vacuum cleaner".
posted by walrus at 2:01 AM on October 30, 2001

Ouch, I sound like my mother.
posted by walrus at 2:02 AM on October 30, 2001

Yikes you're turning into your parents! Stop it!

I can remember being fed the "toys in our day..." line as a kid and it always puzzled me. "Why grandad, of course I can see how a metal hoop and a stick would be much more fun than my Bionic Man action figure" - Y'know what I mean?

I guess if all you ever built out of a Lego set was the model in the instructions then it'd be crap - but no one (actually, I do know of one sad bastard who glues his kids lego sets together), lets say no one sane, does that.

My kids build fantastic stuff with Lego - best toy they have.
posted by jiroczech at 3:21 AM on October 30, 2001

the argument that modern toys don't require as much creativity as their older counterparts was taken back a generation in a news story a couple of months ago that linked the triumph of lego over meccano to the demise of british engineering.

personally i think a childhood spent building lego models, with or without the instructions (easily lost, destroyed or chewed up by younger siblings), is great training for an adulthood spent putting together flat pack ikea style furniture.
posted by kirsty at 4:17 AM on October 30, 2001

Zbigniew Libera's Lego Concentration Camp: "...a seven-box limited edition of three LEGO sets of a concentration camp. Libera worked with the LEGO Corporation of Denmark to produce boxes which looked like 'normal' LEGO systems. Inside were the bricks and other pieces to construct the concentration camp shown on the cover." ("Iconoclasm in Conceptual Art About the Shoah," Stephen C. Feinstein, "Other Voices," illustrated.)
posted by Carol Anne at 4:48 AM on October 30, 2001

my lego collection was never too impressive. my mom just never wanted to buy'em for me. i always ended up going to my friend's house who had a whole freakin' planet of legos (and not to mention all the ninja turtle bases and several G.I. Joe vehicles.. grrr.). he never let me play with any of them, with the exception of a pirate ship (he was into space stuff.). oh, i still remember my joy when i playfully opened the mini-treasure chest and found lego coins.
posted by lotsofno at 4:50 AM on October 30, 2001

Eric Harshbarger appears to be somewhat of a Lego demigod. I think I prefer Henry's Dinosaur on the whole, though. And as for this ... well, frankly I'm scared ...

Can you tell I'm bored at work right now?
posted by walrus at 5:22 AM on October 30, 2001

I'd like to point out that, contrary to what has been stated in this thread and other places, modern Lego kits DO NOT contain models created out of 3 or 4 snap-together pieces. Lego does indeed have a lot of specialized pieces. However, it is highly debatable to conclude that, because they offer for instance fully working spring-shocks for cars or a higher number of gear wheels, they are taking away creativity. While some of the special pieces pieces might be redundant (i.e. they can be created using existing pieces), it is worth noting that virtually all Lego elements can be combined with others - and that alternate models can still be constructed out of all lego boxes.

While the article and the thread work focus on creativity, it is worth noting that Lego encourages that creativity through a modular approach (Lego blocks snap together in *fixed* number of ways - part of the trick is that the number is high) . As I have said before, since the specialized pieces still combine with each other, the modular approach is not lost.
posted by magullo at 5:46 AM on October 30, 2001

It's interesting. A couple of years ago, I turned my niece onto Lego and now show anxiously craves new kits from me for every gift-giving occasion. But whereas when I was young, I randomly put things together from huge 400 brick sets, she simply wants to put together the model included in the instruction book and put it on a shelf like a model or tophy to be admired.

It disappoints me a little since, like others, it feels like there is a lack of creativity. That she was simply willing to be one of the media masses with a latent desire to be told what to do / say / think. Look, build this and you'll feel instant gratification. None of that 'having to think' stuff for you.

But, it begs the question. Would I have been any different back in the 70s if there were kits then like there are now? Or is it just that the big mess o' brick kits were just more common? Did I create things because nobody was there to spoon feed me? I mean, the specialized kits are a step closer to realism than the generic kits - a castle wall has a drawbridge rather than something approximating the drawbidge cobbled together from a bunch of little boxes.

So, it leads me to think that there, but for the grace of God and twenty years, go I. It becomes clear to me that when my child is born in 7 months that it becomes my burden to make sure that they get pushed a little beyond accepting ready-made stuff and encouraged to foster their own creativity.

Hell, it worked for Frank Lloyd Wright and the Bauhaus.
posted by warhol at 5:47 AM on October 30, 2001

warhol- don't worry, kids are naturally creative, no matter what generation. My son is 4, he has a huge stash of duplo blocks, but he loves building things with stuff we find in the yard or garage - blocks of wood, sticks and branches, rocks - it's really amazing. Just a little adult direction and encouragement is all that is needed.

The greatest creativity killer is too much tv, not exposure to later generation lego toys.
posted by groundhog at 6:10 AM on October 30, 2001

The best Lego-like toy we have for our 2 and 4-year olds are Mini Mega Blocks. No themes, no faces, just basic shapes. They build cities, castles, dragons, even a sister.

With the Duplo Winnie the Pooh kit they get bored. Build it then smash it.

The more complicated the toy, the more likely it is to gather dust. Simple is best: balls, cardboard tubes, blank paper and magic markers, books, seashells, feathers, trains, dolls, Hot Wheels, cushions, blankets, big boxes, and laundry baskets.
posted by MRYeatts at 7:20 AM on October 30, 2001

A rather disappointing article IMHO which could have done with a little more research. Even as a kid I realised a certain utopian worldview was reinforced by the bricks - not just the absence of C20 weaponry but the all-yellow characters, lack of any green/brown components (except trees and grass) with which to build army vehicles, etc. Also, no mention is made of the company's many recent software only products, which would seem on the face of it to offer the bottomless box i would have killed for aged 8. I'd be very interest to know how well those have done.
posted by elliot100 at 9:01 AM on October 30, 2001

Encourage boredom in children. It's the best way to channel their imaginations. Pure, stultefying childhood boredom is a great thing.

(And yes, my box of Lego when I was a kid contained just the basic blocks.)
posted by holgate at 9:44 AM on October 30, 2001

I used to love the spaceship sets, because they could be combined in so many varieties. Granted most of the resulting things were some variant of spaceships or submarines... but I'd make extra wide ones, 3-seaters, double deckers, and ones that could split into two separate vehicles. Those were the days.

Lego Technic seems sort of engineer-ish but in reality, it's harder to actually make something new than it is to just follow the instructions and build the thing on the box. Bricks are one thing, gears and shafts and pulleys are a lot trickier.

And Bionicle is slanted even more toward the build-and-shelve-it mentality... most of the similar-sized robots are almost identical in construction, just with different colors and weapons.
posted by Foosnark at 10:11 AM on October 30, 2001

Why even give them toys at all? Take them out to the city dump, see how creative they can get there!

Isn't that always the complaint? That kids today aren't as smarty, or creative, or polite, or moral than they were back then? (Back when we were kids, obviously.)

I don't buy it. Not until I see some evidence.
posted by Jart at 10:25 AM on October 30, 2001

Here's another one that counters the "less creative" argument. JP Brown does Serious Lego, including a Lego robot that will solve Rubik's cube.
posted by JParker at 11:02 AM on October 30, 2001

As I kid, I preferred playing with decks of cards, mostly because you could build some pretty neat things, and build them big. I'm talking 5 feet high, here. Trying to do that with legos requires less skill and and would have a very negative impact on most household budgets.
posted by Witold at 11:08 AM on October 30, 2001

The thing I miss most about Lego is the fact that they used to be cheap. I remember getting a kit every Christmas. Now I look at the $99 prices, beg and plead with my parents to buy me the Millennium Falcon (I'm 20!) and they look at me and laugh.

I can barely afford what they call the "small" kits. Lego has gotten out of hand. These "models" aren't for the imagination. They're for looking at and collecting dust.

Give me my stable, my hospital, and my airport anyday. All I know is that my kids better take damn good care of them when I hand them over.

posted by KoPi_42 at 11:39 AM on October 30, 2001

Speaking of Bionicle, there's been some controversy here over the use of 'murray' names for some characters.
posted by Catch at 11:54 AM on October 30, 2001

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