If you walk into my son Aaron’s room you will be confronted by the full array of Star Wars clone armies pointing at your feet. The ships are lined up against the wall and their enemies are facing them with all the weaponry that George Lucas could think of.
And each and every piece is Lego, painstakingly put together following the precise directions that can drag on for 20 pages or so.
Directions for Lego? If you are wondering what I am talking about then you have not been in contact with any boy older than 5 in a long time. Lego has changed, it’s not just a bucket of bricks that you fashion into guns and towers anymore, it is all about exact instructions and Hollywood replicas.
Every parent and grandparent who is currently scouring the shelves of the toy store looking for the limited edition Venator-class Republic Attack Cruiser™Item #: 8039 has asked themselves: what happened to the Lego I remember?
Well, after facing possible bankruptcy four years ago, Lego decided to embrace popular culture instead of avoiding it and now makes tie-ins with popular boy-friendly movies and narratives. The most popular is Star Wars Lego, but Indiana Jones and Batman have been other big hits with the pre-pubescent set. Ben 10 and Toy Story Lego is coming out in January, just so you can hear a new set of whining right after the holiday season.
So is Lego making a deal with the devil? Are they trading the open-ended creativity for instructions and profits. Probably. My boys rarely just go and start throwing some bricks together into some kind of fantastic vehicle; they look for the instructions and build it according to some Lego engineer’s dream. After they have put it together, they then keep it that way… forever.
The only time they use their imagination is when they are at their grandmother’s or at the cottage where the Lego is “from the olden days” as my 9-year old says, and does not come with instructions. They still love to play with it, but it’s kind of like watching actors on SNL who are not used to improve, sometimes their play is a bit wooden and falls flat and sometimes it all comes together.
I had to laugh when I received an email from a friend asking if I wanted to put my 6-year old in a Lego playgroup, which would cost $180. A friend of hers had seen an ad in a bus shelter for a Saturday morning playgroup and approached the leader to see if he would do a group in her house after school. It would be great she said, the boys would learn how to put Lego together and get some building skills etc etc.
In a typical moment of modern parenting I was confused, Is this a great idea? Or over-parenting and over-programming to the extreme? I chose the latter, and last night snidely asked how the group was going. Total disaster was the response. The leader comes with two huge buckets of Lego, puts them on the table and then goes and talks to the parents. He made $2000 and the kids didn’t even get any Lego out of the deal.
I told her for $1000, I would go and steal the Lego out of my mother-in-law's basement and then they could even keep it.
We still think Lego is a great toy and we buy it for them, and we have the wounds from stepping on those little pieces to prove it. But it’s not like we have a choice, they email out their Lego wishlist, which we and everyone in the family is totally beholden to. And the makers of Lego aren’t stupid; they release new and exciting models all the time and also take some off the shelves. It’s like the kid’s version of the stock market. They are even starting to build their own narratives so they don’t have to pay those George Lucas-types.
Lego is also targeting adults with their design programs. Check out this article of a Toronto man arrested after putting together a gun out of Lego. Of course, the Internet is the perfect place for Lego geeks to show off their talents. I have no doubt that at least one of my kids will end up with some material for this site, and take a look at their blog roll -- that's a lot of Lego being built! And for those of you worried about your kid's Lego obsession, there is hope! This guy makes a very good living doing Lego art.