When Lego Goes to War

LEGO Star Wars minifig

Legos have changed. The CEO Of the Lego Group claims they're now "very open source," re-oriented to lovers of the Lego brand. Of course, he's "adjusted" the business costs, but mostly they've made a return to their traditional emphasis on "the joy of building and the pride of creating things."

I'm not convinced. As an educator who's been using Legos to teach kids for over a decade (advance high school stuff, like how to build catapults and the physics it demonstrates), and despite the CEO's new interview, I feel an urgent need to express where Lego has gone wrong.

1. War toys

I can remember when the owner of Lego promised they would never promote or create war toys. For me this was a big selling point: a toy that wasn't destructive, and in fact didn't promote destructive behavior in their advertising! Sure, kids might build a tank or a mock gun, but it was a product of their own imagination, not the building plans! Our motto in the after school centers was: "Peaceful, Positive and Practical."

Over the last decade, I've seen Lego's themes take them gradually to war. It started with minor "minifig" characters and then fully developed violence-based pirates/soldiers/knight themes. Then there was a shift to Galidor's "Defenders of the Outer Dimension" tie-ins, and Bionicle fighting the evil Makuta. Now there's full-fledged futuristic mecha-war machines in Exo-Force!

When Lego first started down this road — with knights — the owner of Lego explained they were highlighting the "romance of the knights," and not emphasizing violence. With the wave of new themes, this isn't really true anymore.

Years ago, there was a brouhaha about an artist who created a Lego kit based on holocaust scenes. Lego would never produce such kits. However, I do predict that Lego will continue to produce war-based themes, and it's only a matter of time before they produce "tank" models or other modern war machines.

2. Merchandizing and commercialization

Lego always seemed to be something greater than a retail product. I attended a conference at MIT where I heard it argued that Lego should be considered a new category of Froebel's Gift. (The "free play" educational toys designed for kindergartens in 1840.) The boxes were always fairly generic, and emphasized interesting constructions for different age groups. But over the last decade we've seen countless movie tie-ins and multiple product spin-offs.

Lego has unleashed waves of comic books, candy, movies, video games, and waffles. Children will refer to a kit as "Batman Legos." It used to be that I could walk into a toy store and immediately identify the Lego section. Today, they're interchangeable with other popular construction toys.

A related trend is the rapid phase-in and phase-out of kits. Lego's goal seems to be to whet the appetites of collectors by producing hosts of special kits, and then promptly discontinuing them. This is frustrating when a particularly well-done or interesting kit suddenly becomes unavailable.

3. Specialized and decorative elements

Part of the beauty of Lego was that you could keep adding to your collection of generic interchangeable elements, to build larger and more complex projects. We've seen a trend towards specialized decorative elements, likely as a result of movie and TV tie-ins. We've seen Lego move to smaller elements — perhaps in an effort to save money by using less plastic. In any case, any retail Lego collection fills rapidly with gobs of sorta-useable decorative elements. It's a far cry from the construction kits of the past.

4. They moved their manufacturing

I admit I am biased, and I understand that because of globalized production, the world is flat. Yet, there was a romance with Lego. They were made in Denmark. (Though some bricks were produced in the United States.) Now they have moved manufacturing to Eastern Europe and China. This undoubtedly saves them money, but it destroys some of the romance. What's the difference between a knock-off brick made in China and a Lego brick made in China? Lego even let many of their U.S. developers go! There was the "farmhouse" — in Connecticut I think — where Lego geniuses planned new kits and themes. They were all let go. It makes me wonder if the pseudo-move to open source is really a way to keep overhead down by not having any developers on hand.

Lego still has a variety of wonderful kits and themes. The RCX/NXT trends are awesome! That said, they are a shadow of the fantastic constructive elements I worked with a decade ago.

There was a day when other constructive toys were not even in the same league with Legos as a tool for education. Lego has debased, diluted, and devalued their product to such an extent that other constructive toys are becoming far more attractive.

In his interview, Jorgen Vig Knudstorp described how Lego started producing cars that required less construction...and they have come back to creating kits that require much construction. That spoke to me.

But the website says the interview is at the company's "Innovation Centre" in Billund, Denmark. It reminded me of that website where someone took images from porn movies and removed the people, leaving generic, almost sterile rooms.

I think that says something about Lego.

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7 thoughts to “When Lego Goes to War”

  1. Loss of Lego Memory

    Lego’s founding family (starting with Ole Kirk Christiansen) promised over and over: “no war toys”. The family was quoted numerous times in the 1970s and 1980s repeating this mantra, as part of Lego’s values.

    A 1988 article in Smithsonian stated: “Lego has traditionally avoided a classic theme many other manufacturers feature. Ole Kirk decreed that Lego was to be a peaceful toy, and the company shuns martial motifs and guns. The idea of producing a castle and knights caused soul-searching; the family finally approved a medieval model as romantic, rather than bellicose.” A Lego PR director is quoted: “…we don’t want to inspire children to make [tanks and machine guns].”

    The slippery slope started with medieval knights, policemen minifigs, soldier, pirate, and samuri themes. “Ah the romance!” claimed Kjeld Christiansen. And then the exceptions became larger and larger.

    A 2001 article in Fast Company stated:
    “The only thing more vivid for Lego than the bricks and the history are what are known universally within the company as “Lego values.” Not just the importance of free-form play. No Lego-designed toys are allowed to portray weapons from the 20th century — although a recent exception involved a new, advanced kit for building a Sopwith Camel, the Allies’ World War I biplane fighter.”

    Today, they seemed to have stopped their soul-searching altogether.

    In the same Smithsonian article, Kjeld Christiansen is quoted as saying “Our philosophy is not to go with quick fads.” Been to a Toys-R-Us lately?

  2. I’m not sure about the first point of this post, simply because even without Lego moving in the “war” direction, many kids do it themselves. As a young boy that grew up with Lego and who never owned any war themed kits, I still periodically built war machines out of my own creation. I often mixed generic sets and further modified kits with tape, tools, or other toys to create structures (and yes even weapon systems) that were otherwise impossible. Lego was as much a stand alone “learning activity” toy as it was part of my “galaxy battles” that involved GI Joe, Transformers, and the occasional Barbie (as the enemy of course). I think the point is more about where kids get the “inspiration” to build the things they do, and whether even if they do build things with violent tendencies, one can conclude they will all turn out violent. I know I certainly didn’t.

    As for the rest of your points, I here you. I hate the specialized pieces and that Lego is no longer made in Denmark.

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