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18 thoughts on “Discussion: Another Brick in the Wall

  1. Some people enjoy jigsaw puzzles, and I’ve always seen Lego-by-instructions as in that same category. The satisfaction of seeing a finished item form through your own work, and just enough mental labor to occupy your mind for some time. Of course, that seems to depend on the premise that someone has too much time and is actively looking to occupy it, which is incomprehensible to me, but hey, that also puts this in the same category as many videogames boasting how many dozens of hours they can absorb.

  2. Stephen, if I was to dial down my Lego irritation for a moment, I’d probably be able to say more calmly that there is a long tradition of building models from kits. Maybe I’m being snobbish, but I don’t see Lego kits as being quite the same thing; it’s easy to put together an airplane model badly and thus there is a skill to it, while a Lego model is easy to put together. That, of course, is what brings you to the jigsaw analogy.

    But I can’t quite group Lego models together with jigsaw puzzles either, simply because the jigsaw is meant to overwhelm you: there’s no index or numbering, there’s no method for assembling; and, sure, a lot of it is just scanning the pieces, but it is intense on pattern matching.

    There’s nothing inherently wrong with the idea of building a Lego model by numbers. I suppose it comes down to two things. One, as H Khoa succinctly puts it, they are just bloody expensive. The other is that they assert themselves to be a bastion of creativity, when in fact they’re teaching kids to follow orders.

    However, even now, I’m still being an extremist. The low-powered Lego sets are simple enough to invite children to play with them how they see fit and, as children do not pay for the sets, they may be far happier to resculpt the bigger sets… although, once time is invested in making something, it’s a monument to that effort and there’s a mental barrier to deconstruction. I speak from anecdotal experience here. The small sets are reshaped into all sorts of wonderous things whereas anything more significant remain dust magnets forever.

    (The picture, incidentally, is one of many random Lego constructions from my son.)

  3. @Joel
    I am offended. I am a fairly creative person. I’ve made probably close to 30 games in my life, maybe more if I were to include tiny projects made in Flash, and some games I no longer talk about.

    Yet at the same time I am unable to enjoy games like Don’t Starve, which have no inherent goals beyond “survive”. Sure, I can play it for a few hours, build a base where I am basically safe, and the remainder of the game is just… doing the same hting over and over again? Give me achivements to do all the crazy stuff that other people can do!
    I can’t do long Dwarf Fortress runs, because after the initial fortress build I can’t find something for myself to do.
    I lose interest in any idler in which the progress slows down too much, or when no new mechanics can be discovered and explored.
    And I can’t really play with Legos “creatively”. I don’t find joy making my own stuff that I’ll have to disassemble later. I am really awful at translating what I have in my head to Lego, so I usually end up more frustrated than happy.

    On the other hand I find great joy in building sets while following instructions. Something in brain is borked such that my alignment in DnD could probably be called “Lawfully Lawful”[1]. Like, I love it. Another thing I love is, I have this collection of Lego from when I was a kid, most of it inherited from my brothers, and from time to time I sit down, go to Rebrickable and try to collect the remaining “freeform” bricks into sets, to later buy the missing pieces, to later be able to gift whole sets to my kid when he’s old enough to play with them by himself.

    You know, I was recently diagnoses being on the spectrum. Looking at what I just wrote, I think I should’ve figured it out sooner.


    Okay, I am not really offended. Just maybe slightly nonplussed because your post seemed like it was attacking people like me specifically, and accusing me of lack of creativity… Then again, maybe I am less about creativity and more about derivativity.

    Huh, now that I think about it, I could probably accuse your point of view of being neurotypical-centric 🙂


    Side thought – if you think following instructions is non-creative I have a great challenge for you. Try to assemble a set without looking at the instructions, and try to assemble it as intended. Recently I’ve been collecting Lego Mario sets and expansions, and we try to assemble everything ourselves, it’s great fun!

    Final side note – I love jigsaw puzzles too.

    [1]: An example of my lawfully lawfulness: In Poland we drive on the right side of the road. Imagine a situation, where the right side of the road is full of small holes and cracked, while the left side is pretty fine. The road is empty. A normal person would, to the best of my experience, drive on the left side as much as they could, to make the drive more pleasurable. I, on the other hand, would drive on the right side, completely missing the fact I can avoid all the turbulence, because driving on the wrong side of the road, even for good reason, is anxiety inducing to me.

  4. so on the one hand, i grew up with a big tub of lego, that was the accumulated parts of many small, cheap(er) lego sets (birthday presents for several kids over tennish years adds up). instruction booklets got lost or discarded pretty quickly, and we would just use the parts in the tub to build anything that came to mind. nothing we would build would last more than a week or so before being demolished again, and recycled into something different. so on this hand i am on team Joel.

    but on the other hand, im sympathetic to Maurycy’s pov. these days i find that childlike reckless creativity extremely difficult to access, and yet putting together lego sets just following the instructions is still an engaging, pleasurable experience. it isnt perhaps intellectually challenging, but still employs nontrivial spatial and fine motor skills.

    though not all sets are equal. the saturn v set was an absolute joy to put together, with a lot of interesting construction techniques and creative reinterpretation of parts (washtubs as rocket nozzles, pirate telescopes as support struts, flowers as rcs thrusters). but then i bought the lunar lander set, and it was tedious and repetitive to build, and the result was unremarkable.

    when i was a kid, i went through a brief cross-stitch phase, and maybe thats a better point of comparison than jigsaws? fine manual work while following instructions precisely (and swearing when you mess up and have to undo a bunch), and the result is something attractive to put on display, no more. a lot cheaper than lego though 🙂

  5. I think what you, Joel, was trying to say comparing prefabricated Lego sets for collectors and basic sets is that one is made specifically to be assembled in a given shape following at risk the instructions on a paper while the basic set gives the person multiple possibilities even the possibility to construct the basic shape itself. Meaning that in the prefabricated sets you are obliged to follow the rules step by step, there is no other way around, there is no shape, is so specific that is just made for be built and exposed, therefore it’s not a toy, it’s a trophy. In the sense that a toy has playability and so space to creativity and by consequence it becomes a enjoyable experience. While the prefabricated sets cannot be compared to a jigsaw puzzle because it is not supposed to be interactive, the instructions in this sense it’s just a blueprint, there is simple no meaning in the pieces alone and the intelectual process in building the sets it is not same as a jigsaw, is more like assemble a chair or a table, which let’s all agree has not the same entertainment value as a puzzle, even if someone thinks its a fun time. I will go as far as say that it can’t be compared to any game at all in this discussion, in the same meaning no one would compare a open world gameplay to a bookcase that can be build in four different ways and an first person shooter to a coffe table that becomes a chair. Unless it’s supposed to be game, maybe from furniture lovers, which is not a bad idea either…

  6. I think the Lego movie was pretty much dedicated to this dynamic. Unsurprisingly, I believe the moral was ‘whichever way is great, as long as you keep buying Lego’. I was an ardent tubber in my youth. I even used to assemble animals and vehicles out of jenga bricks. But in my dotage I cannot conceive of Minecrafting for Minecrafting’s Sake and am seemingly immune to the allure of unstructured play. Allergic even. My Animal Crossing house was room after room of stuff haphazardly dumped on the floor. My IRL house is room after room of… well you get the idea. Have I changed? How, and when?

  7. @Andy Oh yea, that’s another aspect – assembling difficult sets can be challenging in the sense, that they do require precision. They can also be great for teaching you new techniques – I might not be a Master Builder like in Lego Movie, but I still enjoy the aspect of learning new techniques for the sake of learning them. Kinda for the same reason I sometimes read random things on wiki/TV Tropes/ watch educational stuff on YT.

    Also when I was a kid I was way better at just playing with Lego. What I used to do was play Shrek from VHS in the background (or one of the first two Asterix live action movies), pour all the lego on the floor and just build random stuff, and play fake “video games” with them.

  8. Fascinating melange of perspectives here. I wonder how much of the ick factor of the big sets comes from them being yet another extension of the inescapable giant brands. Buy more Star Wars and Marvel stuff!

  9. No, Maurycy, I don’t think I can deal with a second unsubscriber today!

    First of all, this is the second version of this comment, the inferior version, as an abrupt power cut devoured the first.

    I knew I was treading a fine line by taking a shot at the ideology of Lego while trying NOT to take out innocent bystanders, the ordinary men, women and children who use Lego. I just wanted to cover how Lego, the company, talks up a “traditional” view of creativity, of Lego letting kids surf their imagination and we’ve got LEGO Masters all over the world, promoting the clever things you can do with Lego. And yet they make most of their money from the opposite of this, from sets that do not seem to need any creative input.

    But I think our only disagreement here is over the meaning of “creativity”. There are plenty of pastimes that we could easily label as creative – painting, writing, gardening. And there are others that we might struggle to label in a similar way, but are genuinely engaging – painting by numbers, playing board games, building a model. I am scared to take the discussion much further than this, because it feels rather close to arguing about the meaning of “game” or “art”. Or what moon logic is.

    I have no problem with joy, wherever it comes from (well, provided it doesn’t hurt anyone). And just because someone builds models does not mean they are any less creative than anyone else; I really don’t think creativity works as simply as that. (I also think that claim that Lego is important for the imagination is overblown.) But perhaps I should’ve chosen my words better and, in particular, that last line is most poisonous, implying that building according to a printed design is a lesser pursuit. It’s more of exasperation at the disconnect between Lego’s marketing message and what they seem to be. And how an app that then model-set-izes random Lego takes that even further. It’s not necessarily always good for AI to “do work” for us.

    It’s a lovely suggestion to try to assemble a set without instructions – I was actually struck with that idea during the above comment when I realised a jigsaw was just a model kit without the assembly instructions. But this is the most delightful thing:

    …and from time to time I sit down, go to Rebrickable and try to collect the remaining “freeform” bricks into sets, to later buy the missing pieces, to later be able to gift whole sets to my kid when he’s old enough to play with them by himself.

    Andy I think I am jealous of you having that Saturn V. In fact, I didn’t have that much Lego when I was younger – it was the chunky, coloured Duplo blocks (OMGZ I LOVED) followed later by a hand-me-down mix of small white and red blocks. I liked making stuff with it, but all my creations were terribly boring. I think it’s a good point that not all model sets are easy to make but I still don’t know if you could call that “creative”? It’s skilled, for sure.

    Hey PMM I think that’s roughly it, but I would stop short at saying “has not the same entertainment value as a puzzle” because that value is in the eye of the beholder. Again, this is more about Lego bearing the Crown of Imagination which I’m not sure they deserve.

    And maybe Dan is on to something there. I really do hate all the cross-brand pollution, the way everything is momentum advertising for something else. It’s my number one pet hate when it comes to Fortnite.

    I’m also getting worried because there are a lot of responses here, the latest being CA‘s, along the lines of “I built Lego all the time as a kid but now I can’t build for toffee.” THEY PUT SOMETHING IN THE WATER

  10. @Joel – I agree, the value I was thinking was in the sense of type x and type y, not in the sense of x y, but I expressed myself poorly, seems that the ghost of definitions is still around.

  11. Joel: ‘I think it’s a good point that not all model sets are easy to make but I still don’t know if you could call that “creative”.’ no, i also wouldnt call the mere following of instructions, however joyful, a creative act in itself. it can be a valuable part of a creative process, but yeah lego-the-company doesnt deserve to claim too much credit for that.

    CA: “everything is awesome, everything is cool when youre part of a [money-making] scheme!” — i detest the lego movie. it has the same smell of industrialised battery-farming of peoples joys that is called “consumer culture”. which i guess is the same rotten force underneath legos endless brand tie-ins, and the unpleasant dissonance between that and their talk of creativity that Joel is talking about.

    i guess lego-the-company talking up creativity is a little like the us and the uk et al talking up freedom and democracy. or the tories talking up how wonderful the nhs is.

    there is a huge community of hugely creative lego users out there! but lego-the-company is largely parasitic on that.

    one other point that i dont know where to fit: despite the practices and prices of lego, i do appreciate that the product itself is still of the same high physical quality.

  12. @Joel

    Okay, it’s tomorrow so I can unsubscribe now ;).

    I think it’s a problem inherent to valuing certain facets of something against other facets… Okay I have no idea how to describe it except by breaking down an example.

    I don’t think anyone would disagree with these statements:
    1. “Building your own creation with Lego is more creative than building a set following instructions”.
    2. “Lego, by mostly releasing sets with instructions, is a little hypocritical when then they claim Lego is about creativity, since the ‘official way to play with Legos’ is not very creative, as per #1”

    I think the issue lies with the fact you can’t say those two things without making the reader feel this:
    “People who buy Lego sets and assemble them with instructions are not creative”

    Even if that’s not really what you’re saying, at least to me it feels like a default implication. And then you can claim that’s not what you meant, but it sounds like “I am not racist, but…”

    Or maybe, to put it differently, it’s almost impossible to criticize a company without also criticizing its customers.

    I feel like that’s the gist of my kneejerk reaction to the article. To be fair, at no point I truly felt offended, I was being facetious about it (I hoped I made it obvious but maybe not?).


    Yet another side note. I was watching some cool Lego construction video today and I realized something – I’d be much more interesting in freeform building if I had about 50 times as many pieces as I have, because usually my problem is that stuff I’d like to build is just too complex and complicated for whatever is in my stash.

  13. Do any construction games deal with unexpected discoveries?

    Dwarf Fortress?

    …a lot of stuff to say about the thread and DF is even relevant to it but I’ll just drop that there!

  14. Joel, I wonder to what extent the Lego company almost going under in the early 2000s and its subsequent strategic push into relationship-building with popular franchises plays a role here? The last time I was in a Lego store it was at least two thirds franchise sets and I feel it’s a safe assumption they represent the majority of the company’s revenue. Representing iconic characters, locations and objects recognisably leads to Lego kits with many pieces that are quite limited in how they can be used, and that surely plays a role in the tensions we’re discussing here?

    I might be full of shit, though – this is mostly based on memories of an article I read 10-15 years ago, and a bunch of assumptions about Lego sets & revenue.

    Regarding the BrickIt app, I know one or two people who do creative Lego builds for fun, and I can imagine an app like that could deliver a variety of proposals, and in that sense it would be a valuable tool for inspiring creativity – rather than something which inherently limits it. I can imagine that scenario as equally as I can imagine it being yet another unnecessary piece of software that constrains and delimits human potential.

    Personally I don’t see the appeal in collecting expensive Lego kits where you’re just following instructions to make a dust-catcher for your shelf, but then I see a lot of appeal in spending forty Euros on a few 1.5″ tall monopose plastic models that I can paint badly, so who am I to talk? 😉

    Sure following instructions to achieve something is not particularly creative but I can imagine it is relaxing and I think we need to be cool with how people cope with the world through things they find enjoyable. Not everything needs to be about unleashing your potential or advancing this or that talent and it’s okay just to be sometimes. (Of course this defence I am making of letting people be is simultaneously defending a multi-national corporation which I’m sure would trademark “Creativity” if they could, so pinches of salt all round.)

    ^^ Hope that makes sense. I’m a bit under the weather today.

  15. At the beginning of the big Lego phase here, around eight-nine years ago, it seemed like there was a fair amount of non-franchised Lego City etc. sets. There’s an age when kids are into fire trucks and maybe haven’t got so into Batman yet (I am generalizing from a very small sample, and there’s a set of Jake and the Neverland Pirates duplo set around here proving me wrong).

    Anyway I am curmudgeonlily anti-curmudgeon on this, I do think these sets are like models and yes models are easier to screw up but that’s bad! I tried to do a couple of model airplanes in my youth and getting rubber cement all over and winding up with something that wasn’t like the box and you couldn’t fix sucked. Lego sets at least work the way they’re supposed to, can be fixed if you do them wrong, and come with instructions that have clearly been tested by people who didn’t write them (unlike every non-IKEA furniture assembly, but I digress). And kids can start doing Lego before they’d have any hope at model sets.

    Plus there was one fire truck that I put together so many times I began to feel like the army recruit who has to learn to disassemble and reassemble his rifle in the dark. It was pretty satisfying.

    I will say that, like Maurycy, I don’t enjoy buildy games much. It’s not the lack of a goal, I like Proteus and Feather and Fugl where you’re just walking or flying around, but in Minecraft I freeze up. Even though I feel like I should like it, because I like games that throw emergent things at me (that is, I like roguelikes). Maybe it’s connected to my total lack of art skill. You know, the game I did enjoy of that sort was this peaceful little jam game. The gentle difficulty sure helps (maybe also why I’ve bounced hard off Caves of Qud where I don’t know where to start and Dwarf Fortress… well I literally can’t work out the controls in Dwarf Fortress, which is different).

    …I want to talk about Monster’s Expedition and one of the best jokes in it is about Legos as toddler weaponry, would that be enough for a segue?

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