Lego is great for creativity, right?

A lot of us grew up playing with Lego and cherish these toys as much as any childhood memory. There’s a lot to like: different combinations of the same bricks give rise to endless models of people, places and things. You can then dismantle them and start over. If you conceive it, you can build it. That seems like the very essence of creativity.
While the Lego bricks are (largely) the same, the sets I remember (I am over forty) are very different from the Lego sets of today in terms of their concept, content and packaging. I think these changes have profoundly affected the experience.
Concept: Most Lego sets used to feature half a dozen pictures of “everyday” (house, truck, boat, etc.) things one could build along with instructions for a handful. Building one “thing” required dismantling another. Those kinds of sets are a minority of the offerings today. A very large proportion of Lego sets are tie-ins linked to the most successful commercial brands of our time: Star Wars to Ninjago to Marvel Comics. Lego does offer more general purpose (less popular) sets, but even those come with the same content and packaging (below). It is highly unlikely that you are going to dismantle your realistic Ghostbuster house to create a raggedy boat.
Content: The newer Lego sets are far more detailed and realistic than before. Where there used to be dozens of types of pieces, now there are hundreds. The increased complexity means more detailed instructions that must be followed closely. Then you’re “done”. The models can be played with, but the idea of undoing hours of following careful instructions to build something completely different makes it a loss less likely. Many “players” probably build other things with the same set, but I bet that most don’t.
Designing the sets requires a tremendous degree of creativity and many sets include thoughtful touches (“fire” pieces that attach to a dragon’s mouth) and clever surprises (a hidden chute to the bank vault, buy the set to find out). The question is whose creativity? The Lego set designers are doing the creative work; the set assemblers, not so much. Nathan Sawaya, look him up, unquestionably creates art from Lego. But, he does not seem to buy the sets.
Packaging: The old sets came in a molded plastic box that provided a place for every piece. So when you dismantled what you built, you had an accessible place to put away all the pieces and to build again. Organization of component parts is a critical piece of creativity. Visit any productive research lab and you’ll see the reagents and instruments carefully lined up. Everything in its place to be summoned to next set of experiments. The Lego sets now provide the pieces in a disposable plastic bag. When that bag is opened, you’re on your own to corral them and dismantling the model leaves you no easy place to organize the pieces.
It must be said that the Lego I remember and cherish from three decades ago was (sadly) on the brink of financial disaster. The new measures have created a commercial juggernaut with far deeper roots in our everyday culture. So, the corporate revenue-generating entity is doing a great job at anticipating and delivering what the market wants.
Yet, something has been lost. I love Lego and my family has spent a fair portion of our savings on them. My kids appear to enjoy putting these sets together. However, I have no illusions that they are engaged in something particularly creative or educational (unless my kids aspire to careers at the assembly line at Foxconn or assembling IKEA furniture).

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