Friday, June 09, 2006

Lego mash-ups

Michael Chabon on Lego then and now:

By the late nineties, when we bought that first Indian set, abstraction was dead. A full-blown realism reigned supreme in the Legosphere. Legos were sold in kits that enabled one to put together, at fine scales, in detail made possible by a wild array of odd-shaped pieces, precise replicas of Ferrari Formula 1 racers, pirate galleons, jet airplanes. Lego provided not only the standard public-domain play environments supplied to children by toy designers of the past fifty to one hundred years�the Wild West, the middle ages, jungle and farm and city street--but also a line of licensed Star Wars kits, the first of many subsequent ventures into trademarked, conglomerate-owned, pre-imagined environments derived from movies and other media. Instead of the printed booklets I remembered, featuring suggestions for the kinds of things one might want to try to make from his or her box of squares and rectangles, the new kits came encumbered with fat, abstruse, wordless manuals laying out, panel after numbered panel and page after page, the steps that must be followed if one hoped--and after all, why else would you nudge your dad into buying it for you?--to arrive, in the end, at a landspeeder just like Luke Skywalker's (only smaller). Where Lego building had once been an open-ended, exploratory kind, it now had far more in common with puzzle-solving, a process of moving incrementally toward a ideal, pre-established solution.


  1. I sympathize with Chabon's complaint -- but on the other hand, my favorite Lego memories as a kid are of a Robin Hood-themed set that involved building an elaborate tree in whose branches little green Lego foresters could hide.

  2. Yes, I was never a lego-player to speak of, and instead preferred (for non-book-related entertainment) those Playmobile sets which are much more character-and setting- driven (I had the pirate set & had an elaborate novelistic set of stories that went along with it, I still remember the tales about Able Seaman Fletcher...). My brothers on the other hand spent endless hours building things out of the huge undifferentiated box of legos--they all started of course as particular sets, but quickly got incorporated into the mass--obviously there are exceptions, but I think it's often a pretty gendered form of play, with boys building and girls storytelling (I noticed that Chabon's examples of the kids building their own things are both his boys rather than his girls).

  3. It's interesting, because I was a huge Lego geek as a child, and when my mom bought me a tub of Legos (probably when I was around 4 or 5, I suppose) they weren't the "Build What You See on the Box" kind, although those existed too. They were the brightly colored basic building blocks that Chabon reminisces about in the essay. This was only about 15 years ago, so you'd think they'd be easy enough to find nowadays.