Lego my imagination!

I recently happened upon the Gendered Lego Advertising Remixer, which overlays the audio of a Lego commercial targeted for boys with the video of one targeted for girls (or vice versa). It’s meant to say something about gender roles or the advertising industry but Legos are not just any toy; they’re about building things. Legos make engineers, and I can say that firsthand. It may seem that the Remixer could be a springboard to discuss the underrepresentation of girls in STEM fields. I’m reluctant to blog on that touchy topic; for a full sociological treatment, see Margolis and Fisher (2003). Instead, I think the Remixer demonstrates problems with getting children interested in STEM regardless of gender. That is the bigger issue with how Legos are advertised today: they’re not about building things.

Lego’s signature construction mechanic is shown for only about two of an ad’s thirty seconds, as a time lapse. For the rest of the ad, the product might as well not be made of bricks at all. Lego does little to differentiate themselves from a makers of dollhouses, action figures, or other toys made of solid plastic. The models become static, and the building process has a definitive end.

When the models inevitably get dropped on the floor and pieces get lost, the kids want to make something different.  They want to extend and build on what they are given without fear of “messing it up.” Since when is it possible to mess up when playing? Lego constructions don’t need to follow the instructions any more than artists need to paint by numbers.  They’re a child’s rapid prototyping tool, not industrial building materials to follow a blueprint. The quality of a Lego construction isn’t based on how well it reproduces a Platonic form. In fact, it’s not based on the physical Legos themselves at all, but what the kids do with them.

Accordingly, the ads focus on the adventures to be had with Legos. Specifically, they focus on adventures involving the perfectly assembled unit and friends who have purchased companion products. The setting and plot are preordained by professional writers. The kids who buy the sets will lifelessly reenact shadows of the ads, with mouth noises and bedspreads standing in for the dramatic music and rugged backgrounds of the boy-targeted commercials, or the metropolitan feel of Lego Friends.

I spent many enjoyable hours as a child with my sister and a friend battling bipedal Martian spaceships against figures from the completely separate Bionicle series. We extended the limited system using imagination rather than technical performance. The plots went nowhere and everywhere, zigzagging and bouncing with no pre-planned structure. Like the brick creations themselves, our plots were a hodgepodge of disparate ideas, configurable and unique.

The Lego commercials suggest rather strongly that there is only one way to do it. One way to build, one way to play. This is an extremely detrimental idea to the development of young engineers. They may come to see the construction process as a chore, rather than as fun. It robs them of the chance to design their own buildings and stories. The toy that is uniquely able to liberate a child’s creativity has become prepackaged imagination. Madison Avenue is only not taking away opportunities to build something new, but the very idea of building something new.

Excited college students stand around autonomous Mindstorms robots trying to push each other out of the ring.

Thankfully, there’s another side to this story. Tufts has an organization called the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach. The CEEO is known for its large collection of Lego Mindstorms robotics. The robots include sensors and can be programmed in LabView. Although there is a standard robot that includes all the sensors and a drive train, Mindstorms is intended to be flexible. Users are expected and encouraged to modify the hardware and software to best complete a task. These users include both kids in the local community and Tufts students. Fast, agile construction and a fairly sophisticated array of sensors, motors, and software benefit all ages.

The point of Legos is that you can tinker with them: try this approach, see how well it works, and use that knowledge to make a better choice next time. These are exactly the skills that are valuable to an engineer. Yes, there’s four years of course work and plenty on-the-job training to get through, but that’s exactly why engineers need to be highly motivated. The world is pliable, customizable, and hackable. With care and competence, it can be molded into something new and better. Legos should be a child’s first foray into that world, and instill values that will propel him or her for a lifetime.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by LordFokas on May 3, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    As a computer science student for the third year in engineering college, and a kid with an extensive Lego background (mostly Technic and Bionicle, you know, the fun ones), I could not agree more.

    But LEGO, as any company, doesn’t give a f*ck about education or motivating kids and directing them towards engineering. The sad truth about any company is that they’ll do whatever brings more money in, and they’ll do it in the cheapest way possible.

    Luckily, Minecraft is growing, and a lot of kids play it. And that’s good because given the right mods, your Minecraft client becomes a science simulator, like Lego, but with infinite pieces, and with no instructions… it forces you to use your imagination.
    The only downside to it is, instead of playing with your friends, you’ll be playing with your computer.

    Reply

  2. […] http://dethorningstem.com/2012/03/01/lego-my-imagination/ (which argues that the more problematic issue than gender is that Lego advertising doesn’t focus on the “tinkering and creativty” aspect, as well as talking about work at Tufts Center for Engineering Outreach) […]

    Reply

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