LEGO’s Transformations and The Creativity vs. Conformity Debate

Curator's Note

So what did happen with LEGO as Prof. Kane asks in this clip from NBC’s Community? First, LEGO has become a multimedia empire over the years with its successful spinoff of LEGO Ninjago into Cartoon Network’s popular animated series, Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu, numerous LEGO related videogames and books, and of course, the box office hit, The LEGO Movie.

Second, LEGO (or the way people understand LEGO) has shifted from children’s toy to adult collectibles. The growing Adult Fans of LEGO (AFOL) community and attendees at LEGO conventions such as BrickCon and BrickFair (venues for adult LEGO hobbyists and fans to share their passion for LEGO) indicate how LEGO is no longer (or really never has been) just kid’s play. Third, licensing deals with various pop culture brands including DC Comics, Marvel, Warner Bros. (Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and Harry Potter), and Disney (The Pirates of the Caribbean, Toy Story, Cars, and now Star Wars and Indiana Jones as it bought out Lucasfilm) have helped LEGO to reinvent itself and its brand identity.

Based on these transformations, I have two questions that might help us rethink about LEGO.

First, is LEGO a toy to play with or to collect? When we’re done assembling all of the pieces do we disassemble them and put them away or do we leave them for display?

Second, as LEGO sets have become more specialized, particularly the franchise tie-in kits which contain many special bricks that are more difficult to use for other constructions, are we encouraged to create something entirely new or nudged to follow the detailed instructions included in the set and replicate whatever LEGO has planned out for us?

LEGO does encourage its fans to “build outside the box” and provide space for fans to share their creative models in “Create & Share” on the LEGO website. And even with specialized sets, LEGO can inspire us to unleash our creative energy to build original LEGO constructions that go beyond what LEGO can offer as in the case of Alice Finch (a LEGO hobbyist well known for her LEGO Hogwarts and LEGO Rivendell creations). But when LEGO sets are now packaged in licensed kits with detailed instructions on what to make, LEGO also seems to invite us to conform to the rules of the “trademarked, conglomerate-owned, pre-imagined environments” of Legosphere as Michael Chabon wrote in Manhood for Amateurs.


This is a great post to kick off the week, Hye Jin. In particular, I think we'll encounter these issues of creativity/conformity, childhood/adulthood, and IP licensing throughout the week. What especially resonated with me about your post was this idea of adults playing as kids. We see this a lot in contemporary culture, from the popularity of young adult fiction, to the seemingly unstoppable popularity of comic book-inspired film and TV programs to the remakes and reboots of popular 1980s franchises to TV shows like 1980s-based THE GOLDBERGS. Part of this might be due to the fact that the individuals who are now in positions to create and produce popular entertainment came of age in the 1980s, and they are using their influence to produce entertainment that resonates with that time period. Considering that people who grew up in the 1980s are now having children of their own, it makes sense that this kind of entertainment would be popular. Seeing TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES in theaters this summer can be entertaining (potentially) for kids and nostalgic (again, potentially) for their parents. LEGO also fits with this idea, as it simultaneously allows parents to interact with their children while also providing the opportunity for parents themselves to play as children. However, my framework here doesn't quite account for the point you raise about collecting and displaying. As you imply, this is less about "fun" and more about collecting. Perhaps complex and expensive LEGO sets are about manufacturing nostalgia, about reclaiming a bit of one's youth. And, given that many of the licenses are for IPs that Gen-Xers and Millennials grew up with, this adds an additional incentive to engage with these "toys." Combining LEGO with STAR WARS, for example, gives us multiple points of engagement with the past, and it allows us to spend some time living in those worlds.

Hye Jin: Thank you for kicking off the week and for elegantly summarizing some of the key issues with modern-day LEGO-dom! One factor we might also consider in the toy vs. collectible debate is that many LEGOs, once assembled, have moving parts that activate the set. With movie tie-ins, these actions typically help players re-create a scene from the movie (so, again, a predetermined way to play). That said, I wonder if anyone REALLY plays with their $300 Death Star LEGO after it's built... Drew: Yes to everything you said. I am the exact demographic you describe: Gen X, parent to LEGO-aged child, etc. and I can unequivocally state that the LEGO tie-in sets are like a perfect nostalgia storm.

Hye Jin: Great effort initiating the discourse into this week's LEGO theme. I have been anticipating this week on a number of fronts and cannot wait to read (and construct) the ideas that curators and participants bring to play with. First off, I want to thank you emphatically for including the Community clip that I remember seeing the first time it aired but would never have remembered to use. The sentiments expressed by Michael K. Williams's character Professor Marshall Cain echo the displacement individuals can experience when time and progress march beyond perceptions of fixedness, especially in the intimate spaces we hold for experiences like childhood memories. What makes this clip even more cunning is Annie's attempt to raise her hand (in what could never amount to an adequately whole response) and Jeff's immediate nonverbal blockage. The double bind in Cain's question is not only rhetorical but also individual or perspectival. I would argue that Jeff's silent actions communicate how perspectival questions like those raised regarding LEGO's metamorphosis become too complex for adequate response, a painful irony in that this transaction occurs in the supposed intellectual safe space of the college classroom. Of course, the question is also a meta one that the writers room likely digressed over for some time, which supplies yet another throughline to LEGO's own postmodern turn in their products and specifically in 2014's The LEGO Movie. What an appropriate way to ignite our conversation this week. In response to Hye Jin's questions, I identify with Jeff Winger's complicated silence when purchasing LEGOs. As a child all enjoyment came from playing with the LEGOs (as sets or as original constructs) and gazing at the advent magazines that were tucked inside boxes. As an adult I still experience the same allure through the gaze (now a "twice experienced" phenomenon) of LEGO's advent work on boxes, the Internet, in magazines and in stores. Yet I often feel loss and lack once the box has been opened and the construction complete (Lacan would have more to say on this.). If I leave them on display the sets collect dust. If I hide sets away, they break and become absent (the theoretical dualism between "presence and absence" comes to mind). The liminal solution I have is one I did not fully anticipate, parenthood. Piggybacking Nedda, I fit the Gen X demo and locate a "second life" in my four-year-old son's growing love for LEGOs. The limited ranges of consumer/fan emotional experiences still function, including all the acts of longing, pursuit, and the conquest of acquisition. The process of construction and the exploration of contemporary technologies like moving parts and interactive set pieces still bedazzle as well. That said, there is a threshold of adult vacancy where childhood play once existed (As a solution I fill play vacancies with scholarly approaches to thinking about these processes.). Yet I am ultimately afforded generational luxury and sit back to watch my son(s) develop his own creative senses. Perhaps this process exposes some of how legacy functions within consumerism since I affectively reenact updated versions of similar sociocultural-industrial rituals my dad shared with me.

Hye Jin, I really love your post. I wanted to comment on your second discussion point that with the tie-ins perhaps LEGO is wanting us to replicate their plan. While it may be true that they still promote creativity I think that the sets are not where this is promoted. The LEGO stores seem to provide more of a creative outlet allowing you to buy separate pieces. I went on their site yesterday and they are promoting LEGO sets from the LEGO movie that was just released. The caption for the banner read "Build and play scenes from the movie" so there is no doubt that they want you to follow their plan to a certain extent. I think the collect vs play question is a little harder to answer. Nedda had a good point, with the expense of the bigger items you have to wonder if people actually play with them. For those who have children though, they get to have a double dose of nostalgia with some of these sets because they may have grown up with LEGOS and the franchise they're partnering with.

The concept of "play" seems to be a taken-for-granted term that at first glance seems to inform the audience--in this case, for instance, other LEGO players--all that we need to know. After all, when I tell someone that I play with LEGOs, the conversation tends to veer around nostalgia over specific sets or childhood experiences with LEGOs, as Catherine points out astutely above. For me, what is interesting is the "how"--that is, how do you (or I) play with LEGOs? The answer is likely to be quite different and indicative of the many ways in which playing is accomplished. As a child, when my sets were not warring with one another, my prized figures would spend months outside in the rain or shot into space from a slingshot to test their durability; like many of us responding to this post, we find new ways to play with LEGOs as a a parent, scholar, or adult. While nostalgia certainly plays a powerful role in the re-playing of LEGOS, especially for those of us who have not touched a set since childhood, I am not entirely comfortable in grating nostalgia the affordance in how it governs the way we play. To do so, after all, eliminates the possibility of new discovery, which the toys of the best quality routinely seem to provide. Even in models like the Death Star that comes with a pre-fixed menu of playing options has the potential and likelihood to be played in ways that transcends its original design.

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