Why I’ve Started Playing With Legos

A surprisingly great way to pull your brain away from your keyboard

Clive Thompson

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A small car made from a black Lego brick with two sets of wheels attached beneath it, a angled clear brick for window shield, and a white brick at the back, holding two round bricks that looked like jet engines, pointing at the back of the car
Vroom.

See that car above?

I just made that.

With my new Lego set.

Which I now carry around town. I am in my mid-50s, by the way.

I should maybe unpack this a bit.

The other day I was in a Barnes in Nobles getting some books, and I wandered past the section that has kids’ toys. I gotta hand it to Barnes and Nobles: They stock some pretty kickass toys — a truly great selection of Euro-style board games, and lots of weird arty creative sets.

They also stock Legos. Most of them are the “kits” — i.e. you buy a kit to build the Eiffel tower, or the Death Star, or a scene from Harry Potter or something. I’ve never much liked that whole movement towards the kit-i-fiation of Lego. It feels like a devolution: Taking a toy that was originally the epitome of open-ended play, and turning it into the rote following of instructions.

As an aside, I suspect the shift of Lego into “kits” is part of why Minecraft took off so profoundly in the lives of elementary-school kids in the last decade and a half. With infinite blocks and zero prescribed “kits” to build, Minecraft neatly stepped into the cognitive role that Lego was abandoning. I quoted the game designer Peter Molyneux on this back in 2016 when I wrote about “The Minecraft Generation” for the New York Times Magazine (free gift link here BTW) …

“It’s ‘Buy the box, open the box, turn to the instruction sheet, make the model, stick it on the shelf, buy the next box,’ ” the veteran ­game designer Peter Molyneux says in a 2012 documentary about Minecraft. “Lego used to be just a big box of bricks, and you used to take the bricks, pour them on the carpet and then make stuff. And that’s exactly what Minecraft is.”

When I was a kid in the 70s and 80s, Lego was mostly sold in great big boxes of bricks — it was up to you to make whatever the heck you wanted. One summer when my sisters were both off at camp, my mother bought me a 400-piece Lego set, which was more Legos than I’d seen in one place, ever. I suspect my mother understood that if she provided this single piece of entertainment, her nerd son…

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Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net