Friday, December 28, 2012

Sticks and knobs

"Has Lego sold out?" ask Matt Richtel and Jesse McKinley in the New York Times. They are distraught that Lego is no longer marketed as a box of assorted bricks that stimulate a kid's imagination to build his or her heart's desire. Rather, Legos now come in individual kits for constructing specific toys, with step-by-step instructions. Worse, according to our authors, the toys are tie-ins to billion-dollar franchises like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, with theme-related books, video games, and even a TV spin-off.

The end of creativity? Corporate directed play?

The name "Lego" comes from the Danish leg godt, "play well." Should the new name be købe godt, "buy well?"

Not to worry. Construction sets will always be with us, for the kids that want them.

I'm from the pre-Lego generation. My first construction set was Tinkertoys, in their characteristic cylindrical container, followed by Lincoln Logs, and a cardboard construction set during the Second World War that lasted about a month. At some point, I remember an AC Gilbert Erector Set, but it may have been my uncle Leonard's (he was two years older than me). All these toys had booklets or sheets with suggested constructions. Creative imagination? Not so much.

Later, we bought our kids a European Meccano set, which like the Erector Set came with lots of tiny nuts and bolts, time-consuming to put together and a pain to take apart. Then came Legos and finally –- my favorite –- K'NEX.

The lesson of these toys? With a few carefully designed sticks and knobs, in sufficient numbers, you can build almost anything.

Including a universe.
(If you don't recognize these guys, wiki "Watson and Crick".)