LEGO and the Infrastructural Limits of Open Play

Authors

DOI:

https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2945

How to Cite

Taylor, N. (2023). LEGO and the Infrastructural Limits of Open Play. M/C Journal, 26(3). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2945
Vol. 26 No. 3 (2023): blocks
Published 2023-06-27
Articles

LEGO and Adult Hobbyism

For much of its history, LEGO has been regarded as a – if not the – children’s toy. Partially through The LEGO Group (TLG)’s own careful deployment of research on constructivist learning, the building system’s recombinatory logic, bright colours, and foot-destroying durability have become associated with paradigmatic notions of what children’s play is and does (Giddings; Maddalena). And yet the world of adult LEGO hobbyism is complex, rich, and worthy of scholarly attention in its own regard. As recent headlines about the popularity of toys among adults have indicated, LEGO is increasingly viewed as a legitimate adult pastime, if not investment opportunity (Peachey; Fuller and Dorning). Over the course of the pandemic, TLG very carefully targeted whole product lines towards adult builders. Themes like Architecture, Creator Expert, Art, and Botanicals are marketed as tools for adult mindfulness and meditation: expensive 3D colouring books that, when finished, belong on walls, office desks, or coffee tables as display pieces, rather than ending up in pieces on the floor. Such sets may even be accompanied by Spotify playlists meant to serve as ambient noise during building (for more on this topic, see Ogden). But LEGO has been used, collected, and modified by adult enthusiasts for decades, spawning the large and vibrant community of self-identified Adult Fans of LEGO, or AFOLs (Jennings). LEGO serves as the medium for a wide and surprisingly varied matrix of practices undertaken quite seriously by these committed hobbyists, as well as scores of artists and entrepreneurs – including those whose building and collecting practices put them at odds with the AFOL community (Taylor and Ingraham). These practices include, but are not limited to, crafting and circulating instructions for fan-made creations (My Own Creation, or MOCs), either as a hobby or a lucrative business; creating LEGO sculptures for private collectors, museums, fan conventions, and art galleries; designing and printing LEGO-compatible pieces and minifigure accessories that LEGO itself cannot or will not create; and modifying minifigures with decals and/or commercial-quality printing, most often to resemble characters from media franchises for which LEGO does not have licensing agreements.

Given how expensive LEGO is, and how difficult it can be to acquire individual pieces through LEGO’s own Website (particularly in bulk), almost all these practices rely on ready access to aftermarket sources of LEGO. While Facebook and eBay are common resources for used or pre-purchased sets, Bricklink is the most popular site for serious builders. Dubbed the ‘LEGO eBay’, it provides a platform for hundreds of thousands of individual sellers from all over the world to make their pieces available to millions of buyers. In Bricklink’s cataloguing system, every type of piece is given a part number (the same as LEGO uses), and the site provides the piece breakdown for (almost) every set; every Bricklink seller is required to catalogue their own inventory using this system. As a result, buyers can search for and purchase any piece that LEGO has made, in any colour available, either used or new, and at quantity. Because these are sourced from individual sellers and not LEGO directly, and both buyers and sellers can rate each other’s service (as on any good platform), Bricklink works far better than LEGO (or Facebook and eBay, for that matter) to service the kinds of bulk and specialised piece purchases required by both dabblers and serious hobbyists. If you’ve lost pieces required to assemble a set, look for them on Bricklink, where you can sort by brick condition, country of seller, and number of available pieces; if you want to collect Star Wars-themed minifigures, but don’t care for the grey-monotone spaceships they come with, itemise and inventory the unwanted pieces and sell them on your Bricklink storefront. You can also browse for whole sets, in new or used condition; official instructions; and instructions for user-created MOCs. You can even purchase the colourful cardboard boxes (emptied) in which LEGO sets come packaged. In the conversations my colleagues and I had with LEGO hobbyists, artists, and entrepreneurs, which formed the basis for our edited volume on LEGO as material medium, it became clear that Bricklink features centrally in their creative practices (Taylor and Ingraham). It constitutes a vital infrastructure for the teeming exchange in aftermarket LEGO, amounting to millions of transactions and billions of plastic pieces a year. It is, as one influential LEGO blogger put it, the “lifeblood” of the hobbyist community (Ong). 

Acknowledging Bricklink’s vital role among adult LEGO enthusiasts, this article takes up the implications of its acquisition by TLG in 2019, and the company’s subsequent efforts to curtail what it regards as unsanctioned uses of its product. Where journalistic coverage largely focussed on the ambivalence with which the AFOL community regards Bricklink’s acquisition (Wood), I turn instead to the effects that it has had (and may yet have) on the artists and entrepreneurs for whom LEGO is not just a creative medium, but a livelihood. To do so, I approach LEGO as a media platform, one engaged – as other commercial platforms are – in extending monopolistic reach over the means through which we craft and exchange cultural productions.

LEGO as Platform

Since losing its legal monopoly over interlocking bricks, allowing for hobbyists and other toy manufacturers to create products that are LEGO-compatible, TLG has pursued other means to dictate how its products are used (Rimmer). Namely, it has grown and leveraged its power as a media platform, using a combination of technical, discursive, and infrastructural techniques to shape how users produce and circulate their LEGO creations. In understanding LEGO as a media platform, I am more concerned with the ways in which the toy construction system operates as an apparatus of creation and connection, rather than its transmedial reach across movies, video games, television shows, and so on (which is how LEGO is more frequently discussed by media scholars; see Hains and Mazzarella). Tarleton Gillespie’s generative theorisation of platforms is useful in this regard, for the ways in which it deconstructs the semantic richness of the term and shows the ways in which media companies traffic in these manifold meanings. Gillespie speaks of the “figurative” sense of platforms (as structures that enable meaningful activity); the “computational” sense (as software operating systems); the “architectural” sense (the oldest and most mundane use of the term, as a technique of physical elevation); and in the political sense, as an organisation’s core values (Gillespie 349–50). As a “materially digital” building system, LEGO operationalises all these senses (Maddalena). It is at once a physical computational platform, particularly if we consider the numerous product lines as different applications; a tool for supporting creative expression, both in tangible and discursive ways (architectural and figurative platform, respectively); and a company that very publicly engages in progressivist education and safely progressive politics.

For the LEGO hobbyists and entrepreneurs mentioned above, those who are most invested in LEGO as a medium of expression rather than as an education tool, the architectural and computational aspects of LEGO are most immediate. LEGO is their medium of choice, the recombinatory potentials of its elements making it possible to translate virtually any experience or artifact into LEGO form: in other words, to “LEGOfy” it (Ingraham and Taylor). These creators have come up with numerous applications of the toy, some mentioned above (and documented more exhaustively in our other work), from minifigure modification to self-published MOCs. Such applications frequently undermine the careful work carried out by TLG to position LEGO as a progressive and family-oriented educational tool: as a figurative and political platform for constructive play. Below are two examples of small businesses whose products created for adult LEGO enthusiasts produce tensions between these various facets of LEGO’s platform.

Making Guns and Breaking Bad

BrickArms manufactures small arms to fit in the small arms of LEGO’s iconic minifigures: scale models of actual historical or contemporary weapons, as well as some science fiction-themed killing machines. In glib terms, BrickArms makes guns, many of them, for LEGO minifigures. Their products are used extensively by hobbyists and other entrepreneurs because they fill a void left by LEGO’s consistently stated (if inconsistently exercised) stance against military weaponry. BrickArms does not sell its products directly; rather, they are sold through other small businesses like the military-themed set maker Brickmania, which also features BrickArms weapons in its products. 

If BrickArms undermines LEGO’s figurative platform by producing a range of realistic weapons that are at once technically interoperable and ideologically incompatible with the toy, custom minifigure makers like Citizen Brick (which also sells BrickArms products on its Website) pose a related, but different threat. Citizen Brick produces adult-themed minifigures, accessories, and pieces by imprinting official LEGO elements with designs that are frequently raunchy, violent, and/or flagrantly in violation both of TLG’s intellectual property arrangements with other media franchises, as well as its family-friendly brand image. For instance, one popular Citizen Brick product is the “Chemistry Enthusiast”, a minifigure which bears a striking (albeit LEGOfied) resemblance to science teacher-turned-meth-magnate Walter White from Breaking Bad.

Both Citizen Brick and BrickArms operate legally, producing LEGO-compatible products, but both quite deliberately (even gleefully, in the case of Citizen Brick and its tongue-in-cheek marketing) undermine TLG’s core values. These and other similar businesses, not to mention countless hobbyist MOC-makers, present TLG with a conundrum: how to stop entrepreneurs, hobbyists, and artists from creating and distributing violent, reactionary, and/or non-family-friendly uses of a product that is otherwise celebrated for its limitless expressive potential? To put it in terms familiar to media theorists: how might TLG, as platform owner, moderate undesirable content – in this case, content that is tactile and material rather than virtual?

Re-Assembling Bricklink

Content moderation may not have been the sole reason between TLG’s decision to purchase Bricklink from South Korean tech business Nexon; certainly, gaining access to the data on users’ inventories and transactions was also among its key considerations. But the actions taken by TLG shortly after it took control suggest that curbing undesirable uses of its product (particularly those carried out for commercial purposes) was at least one major goal. While TLG rationalised its purchase of Bricklink in terms of supporting its users (“empower the creativity of AFOLs and fuel future innovations”), its first steps were to ban products that featured builds of characters and scenes from media franchises outside of LEGO’s current license partnerships (Bricklink). It also banned the circulation of user-generated LEGO-interoperable products; notable among these banned products were those made by BrickArms.

TLG’s rationale for banning BrickArms was that LEGOfied assault rifles are incommensurate with the values of LEGO – that is, with its status as a figurative and political platform. This is consistent with its public statements (published in 2010, and no longer available online) regarding its refusal to produce certain tools of violence for its own product lines: “the basic aim is to avoid realistic weapons and military equipment that children may recognize from hot spots around the world and to refrain from showing violent or frightening situations when communicating about LEGO products” (TLG, quoted by Lendon). As laudable as this corporate stance is, TLG’s weapons ban has been inconsistently exercised; after all, “realistic” weapons from swords to submachine guns appear regularly across LEGO’s multiple product lines built around fantasy-themed violence.

A different, perhaps more compelling rationale for TLG’s acquisition of Bricklink, and its ban both on non-LEGO products on the site (not just guns) and on products modelled after unlicenced media franchises, is to accomplish through infrastructural means what the company has been unable to do legally, since losing its suit against Canadian toymaker Mega Bloks: that is, to assert a monopoly over building toy systems by curtailing the capacity for either businesses or private individuals to incorporate non-LEGO products into their creations, whether commercial and non-commercial. Like other major media platforms, LEGO encourages connection, openness, and creativity – so long as we use its platform, and its platform exclusively, to do so. 

Here, we can mobilise a further notion of platform, which has attracted considerable scholarly attention in the last decade: understanding platforms as the economic engine of contemporary late-stage capitalism, with the “platformisation” of increasing sectors of the economy entailing the transformation of jobs and, perhaps as frequently, hobbies, into gig work (Nieborg and Poell; Vallas and Schor). Under these conditions, the platformisation of LEGO – facilitated, in part, by TLG’s acquisition of Bricklink – positions small businesses like BrickArms and Citizen Brick, not to mention the countless artists who work with LEGO, as platform workers. They are utterly dependent on access to LEGO, both in terms of the interoperability of their products and in terms of their ability to distribute their products to LEGO hobbyists and enthusiasts. Like other platform workers, their livelihoods are profoundly shaped by the regulatory regimes and policy shifts of corporate media giants.

Conclusion: Infrastructural Instructions

While subtle and arguably relatively contained in its effects, TLG’s operations regarding its acquisition and subsequent content moderation of Bricklink align it with other “platformised infrastructures” like Facebook, Twitter, and Steam: commercial-run systems of connection that purport to foster open, creative forms of production and exchange, while at the same time extending near-monopolistic control over those means of production and exchange (Plantin et al. 298). TLG wants us all to play nice, and very adroitly positions LEGO as the paradigmatic medium for children’s open exploratory play and, increasingly, for adults’ mindfulness and self-care. It has very clear ideas about what playing nice entails: no offensive content, nothing overtly harmful or hurtful, and a cheerful embrace of a sort of focus-grouped politics of progressive representation (Johnson). But playing nice also means, crucially, avoiding anything that is not LEGO. It is a notion of nice that is fundamentally commensurate with and concerned for LEGO’s virtual monopoly on recombinatory, material play. This is a monopoly which, while no longer legal, has been waged ideologically to great success, such that incorporating LEGO-compatible, non-LEGO-branded building bricks into one’s hobbyist builds or commercial aftermarket products is anathema to the AFOL community – those for whom Bricklink is their lifeblood (Taylor). With the acquisition of Bricklink, it is now a monopoly that can be exerted infrastructurally as well. For those who rely on Bricklink for their hobby, if not their livelihood, the message is clear: play by our rules, or don’t play at all.

LEGO famously has a profoundly ambivalent relationship to instructions: instructions formalise and cement LEGO’s creative potentials, but also curtail them. By way of conclusion, we might consider how LEGO’s acquisition of Bricklink constitutes a set of infrastructural instructions: prescriptions not for how certain pieces can fit together to build certain things, but around what constitutes appropriate and acceptable uses of a product that ostensibly has limitless creative possibilities. This set of infrastructural prescriptions has less to do with LEGO’s moral stance as an arbiter and champion of creativity, problem-solving, and progressive education – that is, with its operations as a figurative and political platform – and more with LEGO’s monopolistic aspirations to be ‘the’ operating platform for materially digital creation. 

References

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Author Biography

Nick Taylor, Åbo Akademi University

Nick Taylor combines critical and ethnographic approaches to analyze the subjectivities, communities, and industries associated with professionalized leisure practices; his work has appeared in journals such as Convergence, Critical Studies in Media Communication, and New Media & Society. With Dr. Chris Ingraham, he co-edited the volume LEGOfied, which offers a multifaceted examination of LEGO as a materially digital medium. He is currently working on a monograph about the intersections of masculinities, digital play, and the gendered politics of place.