How Lego Won the War and Lost Its Soul

Castles, wacky racers, anti-aircraft batteries, and pirate ships


When I was a kid I had a big box of Lego. It did not come with instructions. There was no picture on the box. It was just bricks and they were mostly all red. The main type of brick was a sixer. As the name implies it had six connector dots on the top in two two rows of three. I also had bricks 2/3s the size with 4 dots, and 1/3 the size with two dots and (no surprise) oners. I used to spend a lot of time searching through the pile of bricks for the exact brick I needed. This could be frustrating, but it was also part of the fun.

I mostly built forts and castles to play with my toy soldiers.

Later when I was a little older, inspired by the Wacky Racers cartoon, my friends and I built cars with battering rams. We experimented with their construction. They had to be stong and they needed to be weighty but not too bulky. After spending a half hour building a battering ram car we would go to opposite ends of the hallway and roll them towards each other at full speed. They would smash into each other, and the objective was to break the other guy’s car. It was a competition. The question was could I knock the other guy’s wheels off his car so he couldn’t go again?

Around the time I stopped playing with Lego, Lego changed. They started making kits. In these kits, there was a picture on the front of the cardboard box showing you what you could make with the kit. I could be wrong, but I seem to remember the first kits came out around the same time as the first Star Wars movie. I remember thinking at the time ‘that’s stupid — now I can only build one thing. What do I do with it after I’ve built it?’ The worst thing about it seemed to me that the bricks were no longer uniform. Now each kit had special bricks that were only good for building this one thing — let’s say it was a Starfighter. Now there were special bricks for a Starfighter’s wings, and they were completely useless for building anything else.

Around the time I stopped playing with Lego, I started building Airfix model airplanes from kits. They were mostly from the Second World War. My friends built them too. One friend, Richard, (his real name) was much better at it than me. Not only was his painting of the camoflage better, but he, somehow, (and I never found out how), could glue his transparent canopies onto the model over the pilots without smudging them with glue. I never achieved this feat. It drove me crazy. I tried. I was really careful, but nothing helped. My canopies were always glue smeared, my pilots could see nothing, they would have crashed on take-off.

Eventually, when I had build 32 airplanes, and tired of hanging them from my ceiling, I got an air rifle. One day I got the idea to take them outside and hang them from the willow tree in the front garden. Then, because most of my planes were from Allied armies, my friends and I took turns playing we were a German anti-aircraft battery. Each day we blew holes in one aircraft, and that way we passed a pleasant August.

Recently I went to a girlfriends house, who has sons of Lego playing age. They were with their father, so I went snooping around their bedroom. There I found the most wonderful, (and big) Lego pirate ship sitting on a shelf. I asked her ‘hey, so your kids like Lego?’ ‘Well, kind of. Mostly they like video games. They just built the pirate ship and then put it on the shelf. I don’t think they give it much thought. And it cost a forture.’ Yeah, I bet it did.

Why did Lego start telling kids what to build with their kits? Why did they start making bricks that are only good for a ships mast, or portholes, but nothing else. Seems like a stupid idea, until you think about it. It’s a great idea for selling more Lego. It’s a terrible idea for kids actually playing with Lego. What’s the point of building a Lego pirate ship, that you’re too scared to take apart again? Where’s the fun in that? You can’t mix the bricks up with the rest of your bricks, because you’ll never find all the bricks again. And why would you want to build the same thing again anyway?. Lego isn’t a jigsaw puzzle. Lego is supposed to be something you use your imagination to build whatever you want, without worrying about stupid single purpose bricks.

It’s obvious, that Lego did it to sell more Lego. But the problem is now they have a toy kids can’t actually play with anymore. It’s a one-off hit. Great for profits — I guess. Bad for the soul. Because the kids are playing video games. And what they made with Lego is sitting on a shelf. Gathering dust.

I think for boys, the fun is not only in making something, but also in breaking it. If you can’t re-mould what you’ve got into something new — you can’t use your imagination. If I have to build what you tell me to build — then fuck it. Lego is now a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. Big woop.

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