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Grow Up and Brick On – a LEGO ethnography

by admin on May 15, 2014

in Community Articles

(Written by Andrew Taylor)

Andrew Taylor - LEGO Ethnography(NOTE: This essay was written by Andrew for his college class on the culture of LEGO fans. Besides sharing his own experiences, he also interviewed several of our contributors to get deeper insights, and to improve his own perception on the phenomena of LEGO as a hobby. Andrew is a student at California University of Pennsylvania. He currently is a biology major with a pre-medical concentration, and he has aspirations of becoming a clinical researcher.)

WHY LEGO?

It’s been at least eight months since I’ve touched a LEGO brick. I catch myself listening to the steps outside my bedroom door to make sure that none of my family is watching me. I feel hunted and judged, but nobody’s said a word to me. I can almost hear them thinking, “He’s playing with toys again; why can’t he grow up?” I also know I’m not alone in my fears or my LEGO usage. Groups of Adult Fans of LEGO (AFOLs) are everywhere, even here in Pittsburgh. But do I want to be one of them? What if all they really are, are dorky geeks who are pouring their money and time into a toy? Or maybe they’re artists, architects, hobbyists, and dreamers. What’s the difference?

Gently and slowly, I slide a bin out from under my bed, trying to keep the bricks inside from shifting and making their usual thunder. I’ve spent literally years listening to that sound as my brother and I searched through the mass of LEGO bricks for the perfect piece. He and I spent hours and hours sitting on the bedroom floor creating receptacles for our fantasies. Epic wars, monumental constructions, and deep intrigues worked their ways through our LEGO pieces. A few remnants of those events remain, preserved solely out of reminiscence and not for actual creative merit. They are coated in dust but filled with fond memories.

I can also spy the works-in-progress from the stage in my life where I tried to build for some reason other than to work out stories. In a moment of internet wanderings, I had stumbled upon a website called the MOCpages, “MOC” standing for “My Own Creation”. The constructs there put even the sets sold by the LEGO Company to shame, much more my own. Hundreds of dollars and years of effort went into these buildings, and for what? Momentary pleasure? Brief applause from an online community? Training to build even better? I was in childlike awe of these builders and attempted to emulate them, but a suspicion slowly grew deep in my heart. As I aged, I had less and less time for building my pitiful LEGO creations, so how could these AFOLs have enough time to produce their masterpieces? I excused it by labeling it a hobby, but I struggled with the undeniable fact that the LEGO market audience was children. Then I thought of it as art, which is the ultimate excuse for any form of immaturity. But even art shouldn’t be that obsessed with a single and restrictive medium like LEGO. Yes, there’s an almost infinite number of possible piece combinations, but at the end of the day, the creations sitting on my bedroom floor were still LEGO. Encircled by my own doubts as well as what I thought others would think of me being an AFOL, I let the busyness of life squeeze out my LEGO use.

Fast forward about eight months later. One college semester down, a good many more to go. I’d been too occupied to even think about building with LEGO. I still infrequently glanced through the MOCpages to see what friends of mine had built, but that was about it, until I was assigned to explore a culture of my choice and write about the experience for a class. Since a culture is defined by internal interactions and customs, I eventually realized that AFOLs were perfect for an ethnography, especially since I still had so many questions about them. This is my opportunity to find out how and, more importantly, why AFOLs build with LEGO bricks.

CHEESE SLOPE (BLACK)

Ah! There’s that piece I was looking for. I don’t know which is greater, the agony of not being able to find something you want or the joy of eventually finding it. It’s kind of funny, but I think this particular brick is called a cheese-slope, maybe because it looks a bit like a slice of cheese. When I think about it, it kind of reminds me of the AFOLs that I watched these past couple of weeks.

Technically, this piece is a 1×1 angle brick. It probably has some serial number on it for identification, but I don’t feel like it would be worth looking for, considering how microscopic this brick is. I’m not even sure what kind of geometric shape this cheese slope follows. Maybe it’s a thick right triangle, or something like that. Because of its small size, the cheese slope can be placed nearly anywhere, but to tap into its full potential, care is absolutely necessary.

The bane of nearly any LEGO builder is curves. Curvature can vary in an infinite number of ways, and the LEGO Company only produces pieces that curve in a specific way. When those ways aren’t convenient, builders have to find a new way to produce a curve. According to calculus, if you zoom in close enough, you can reduce any curve into a series of straight slopes, and the smallest slope produced by LEGO is the cheese slope. This makes it fairly useful to any LEGO users who want a slightly more organic feel to their creations. Cheese slopes also are applied to mosaics by being placed on their sides, but their angles force a great deal of foresight in order to actually fit together.

Now, how does all this apply to AFOLs? When I started this project, I needed to find some AFOLs. I considered going to a BrickFair in Philadelphia, which is the equivalent of a LEGO convention, but that turned out to be too inconvenient, not to mention expensive. As an alternative, I scanned the Internet for local AFOLs. The Steel City LEGO User Group (SCLUG) popped up, and I was instantly intrigued.

The format of their website was clean and well-done, but not exactly professional. It was obvious to me that SCLUG had not invested a large amount of money into the design of their website. This made sense, because they are not a business. SCLUG is just a group of fans of LEGO, not actual employees of LEGO. The point of the website is for socializing, not advertising. All of the member profiles use their real names, and most even include actual photographs of their faces. My past internet experience has been driven by anonymity, so these SCLUG profiles surprised me. There is a great deal of trust required for that, trust that I entered into when I created my own SCLUG profile. But these AFOL dwell in an even deeper layer of trust that I hesitate to enter: the flow of cash.

“Does anybody have any pieces from _______ series? I need some desperately.”

“I saw some _______ on sale at the Target in my area. Want me to buy them for you? You can pay me back.”

So far, I have yet to see an instance where a SCLUG member claims that they have yet to receive their pieces or money from another member. In my mind, the exchange of money is the greatest source of straining for a social group, including clubs and churches. All it takes is a little pocketing of some cash on the side, and the whole organization can collapse in accusations and suspicion. But there’s none of that here. People know how much a set should cost, how much they should pay, and that they should reimburse pretty quickly. I think that it helps for these AFOLs to know each other personally, but the temptation to steal money must still be there. And so, the trustworthiness of the cheese slope and the AFOLs appear similar.

But money and LEGO bricks can be exchanged in more ways than one. Sites like BrickLink make it easy for AFOLs to sell and buy a multitude of specifically selected pieces, and for some reason, that feels slightly wrong to me. Maybe it’s just because I don’t like shortcuts. Possibly it’s because I’ve never really committed to as huge of a LEGO project as these AFOLs produce on a regular basis. Being able to choose which pieces you specifically want without getting a multitude that you don’t need makes a ton of sense. And it also makes sense to be earning a little money on the side by shipping the bricks you don’t need to someone who does. But it doesn’t seem like the LEGO way, the way that I built as a child. I would sift through a bin, find a brick that worked somewhat with my vision, and build something mediocre. Selling LEGO bricks as a middle-man seems like it’s breaking the rules, just like the way a cheese slope breaks up the 90 degree angles of a MOC. Maybe that’s the line between mature and immature fans of LEGO. Mature fans seems more willing to use LEGO bricks as a means to an end.

On March 24, I asked on the Steel City Lego User Group forum, “Is it Legos, LEGOS, or legos?” Fourteen minutes after I had posted, someone replied, “They are LEGO bricks. There is no plural form of the word that is acceptable by the manufacturer and mostly AFOLs try to follow this guideline. The LEGO Company is very keen about protecting the brand name.”

At first, this seemed nitpicky to me. Why does it matter that much what I call it? It’s a free country: I’m allowed to call them “LeGoses” if I want to. But maybe this is just a reflection of the LEGO Company’s legalism. They’ve been battling copyright and patent issues for a long time. Because of these, TLC (The LEGO Company) has created several guidelines specifically for online forums so they don’t get mistaken for either official LEGO websites or websites trying to be mistaken for official LEGO websites. For example the LEGO logo is trademarked, and cannot be used by unofficial LEGO websites without disclaimers. LEGO should be used as an adjective, not a noun, as in “LEGO bricks”, not “LEGOs”. The following should be posted on unofficial LEGO websites: “LEGO®is a trademark of the LEGO Group of companies which does not sponsor, authorize or endorse this site”. Granted, this all makes a lot of sense given the circumstances, but it still feels ridiculous that a legal definition for the grammatical use of a specific toy even exists. Now that I know about the constraints the LEGO Company has placed on AFOLs discussing these pieces, I can understand why they are so vigilant in how they identify LEGO bricks.

Whatever I choose to do with this cheese slope in my hand, I can trust that it will fulfill its function, just like SCLUG members trust each other even with their money. And if I do this right, I can make a slight curve out of something that otherwise would have been ninety-degree angles, just like AFOLs bend the conventional means of obtaining LEGO bricks. But if I just slap the cheese slope anywhere I want to, it might not look as good as it would if I put some thought and time into where it goes. In the same way, AFOLs follow the example of TLC in the care they utilize to describe this object of creation.

ATTIC SLOPE 1×2 45∘ (BLACK)

Now this is a weird piece. It probably has more facets than nearly any other LEGO brick. All of these weird angles make it hard to use, but very rewarding when put in the right place. For example, it’s an awesome claw or tailwing for a mini-spaceship. All those facets add up to a model that is either really awkward or pretty cool.

Meet Allen Tran, an AFOL and main writer of The Brick Fan, a popular blog that focuses on LEGO. He posts multiple stories each day about new LEGO sets as well as impressive feats of construction, among other things. And he is responsible for completely shattering my picture of what an AFOL can be.

It turns out that Allen builds a lot of his sets out of a box either for his blog or for fun, which means that intense and constant creativity is not a prerequisite for being an AFOL. Now that I consider it, this culture doesn’t specify building, just being a fan. I guess an AFOL is someone who can appreciate good construction or art even if it springs from the medium of a child’s toy. Speaking of toys, some of my interviewees protested against it being called a toy.

“I try to avoid the word ‘play’ on all occasions. I feel the word play demotes the hobby to mere ‘child’s play’, which it is definitely not! I prefer to call it building or using, depending on the circumstance.”

“I’ve come to the point in life where all my friends think LEGO is a toy, I do try my best to make them realize that it’s a complex interlocking brick system.”

Both of these AFOLs have valid points. I dare anyone to look at some of the complex LEGO creations on the Internet and call them infantile or jejune. But at the same time, TLC is a toy company: even their name, which was inspired by the Danish words “leg godt” or “play well”, intimates play as integral with their identity. I still have LEGO catalogs from years ago, and the themes advertised in there are patently child-focused. So, is there a right or wrong answer as to the identity of LEGO? Another facet to being an AFOL.

Toy or not, MOCs or sets, all of these AFOLs I spoke with are united under the LEGO flag, just like all the sides of this attic slope are connected. I’m not sure why that is, though. You’d think there’d be this huge difference between all of these sides, just like there are Surrealists, Pointillists, and Realists in painting. Maybe it’s all in my perception. But this hypothesis does seem to be supported by my interviewees when I asked what they thought of their fellow AFOLs.

“They’re a great group of people who enjoys the same things as I do. There are a lot of talented builders in the world and I’m envy their building skills.”

“…I am active in the local AFOL community and I think they’re awesome.”

“Generally the AFOLs I’ve met are fabulous people. They are kind, creative, very supportive, and generally happy since they know what they like. This is not to say every AFOL is wonderful. There are a few who take themselves too seriously and create a toxic environment. This can be said about any hobby. Thankfully it is often the case that the happier ones stick around longer and make a bigger impact in the community.”

All of the above invest a good deal of time into their local LUG, so they definitely aren’t sociopaths hiding in their basements without any contact with fellow AFOL. For some reason, I have this idea of AFOL keeping to themselves and focusing solely on their own creations, maybe because coordinated building never worked for me and my brother. We would always end up fighting over which way it should be. Maybe this unity is proof of AFOL maturity, since they are able to look beyond the dissimilarities in how they build or describe LEGO bricks and come together as one group, just like the multifaceted attic slope forms one brick.

BRICK 2×4 (RED)

The problem with the pieces I’ve gathered so far is that neither of them have any studs, which are the knobs that stick out for the pieces to connect to other pieces. I need some kind of foundation… this brick should do. Why does this look familiar? Wait, isn’t this the iconic LEGO brick? This is probably the piece that everyone thinks of when they imagine LEGO. It is pretty old, maybe even the oldest of this particular version. But this brick is merely a reflection of a tradition founded on quality craftsmanship.

The LEGO company was founded by Ole Kirk Christiansen, a Danish carpenter who was barely making ends meet during the Great Depression. In 1932, he focused on building smaller items, like ladders and toys. Everything Ole produced was designed and built with great care and detail, and it was because of this that he steadily gained customers and built up a successful company, especially with his toys. Ole Kirk made it his motto “Det Bedste Er Ikke For Godt” or “Only the best is good enough”, and he kept to it, even through factory fires and the loss of his wife. In 1947, Ole and his son Godtfred invested in injection machines that could produce plastic pieces at a high speed. One element in particular captured both of their imaginations: a minute hollow brick with grooves on the sides and studs on the top. These early pieces could connect with each other just like modern-day LEGO, but they had nothing internally keeping them together. By 1958, the LEGO stud and tube coupling brick was patented, which gave the pieces much more strength and ensured that they stuck together sufficiently.

The LEGO company improved and varied their brick design, like switching to acrylnitrile-butadiene-styrene, or ABS plastic. Godtfred’s son Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen (his last name was misspelled when entered into the official records) initiated what would become “themes”. Instead of having insular sets that didn’t relate to each other, TLC would create multiple sets that all relate, City for example. This gave more creative incentive for the designers as well as provided buyers with a “get the complete set” mentality. Today, LEGO is one of the top toy companies worldwide, no doubt through its commitment to quality and ingenuity.

There are striking similarities between AFOLs and TLC. For example, they both follow Ole’s creed that, “Only the best is good enough”. The dedication these two show for precision and unique creativity boggles the mind. Now, it’s obvious that LEGO existed before AFOLs. Thus, it isn’t impossible to theorize that the approach and focuses of TLC have made AFOLs what they are today. If Ole, Gotdfred, and Kjeld had been less committed to creating the best product possible, it’s doubtful that LEGO would have ever expanded beyond Denmark, much less formed dedicated builders who spend months and months building magnificent pieces of art.

The creativity and ingenuity of TLC in how it keeps its place as a top-level toy manufacturer is duplicated in how AFOLs build. By not being satisfied with mediocre products, this company has fabricated one of the most iconic toys in the world. And this drive for excellence has affected the AFOL community. Why would someone pour money, time, and passion into little chunks of plastic if those chunks didn’t represent quality and perfection, guaranteed by the manufacturer?
This 2×4 brick has a plethora of potential, but that’s only because of TLC. Ole and Gotdfred and Kjeld put that potential there, and any AFOL who picks this brick up taps directly into and is guided by it. And because they are all steered by the same endowment, the AFOL community is united, for the most part. Just like this 2×4 unites all of these individual bricks.

JUMPER PLATE (GREY)

Here is a good friend. This piece and those like it are the godfathers of all good creations that I’ve produced. It’s just a go-to plate for whenever I need to center my creation or shift something halfway between studs. The only reason I can think of as to why it’s called a jumper plate is because it “jumps” your pieces to the middle. And when I look at it and recall the hundreds of times and ways I’ve applied it in my childhood, one particular interviewee springs to mind.

William writes for the blog TheBrickBlogger and was referred to me by the administrator of said blog. He’s thirty-four years old and has been married for almost nine years. William is looking to be moving out of his duplex and into a house in the near future. And he’s legally blind, which I think has given him a very unique introspection and self-awareness that has made him a very valuable resource.

“Tell me about your most memorable building experience.”

When I included this question with my list of interview questions, I thought that it would tell me a lot about the individual AFOL without giving any insight into AFOLs as a group. What I found was that all, and I mean all, of my interviewees cited creations of great size.

“I think my cathedral of learning would be the most memorable.” (This creation turned out to be just under a foot tall, which by LEGO standards is fairly large.)

“My most memorable building experience would probably have to be when me and my brother made these super long Coca-Cola trucks with the old logos and parts that came in the old Studios sets.”

“I would say my most memorable building experience would be building a three-level metro station, complete with posters, trains, and civilians.”

Why does size translate into notability? Is it just because they cost more, or took more time? It doesn’t seem fair, since small things can be really creative and difficult to produce too. I felt really conflicted over these questions, so I asked William to clear up some of the fog.

I inquired, “How big of a part does the magnitude of the creation play in how impressed people are with your MOCs or MOCs in general? When you are observing a well-done MOC, are you admiring creativity or simply how much time, effort, and money were put into the creation? Or is it a combination of both?”

William replied, “I think the size of the model has its own place when appreciating a creation. It takes a lot of time and money to collect enough pieces to make something with bulk. So it does play a role in how impressed I feel towards a model. This is also because there are different skills needed when approaching something with size. Many times you under estimate how much things weigh when building.”

“Of course size is more like a single factor. A truly impressive design will need to have other qualities. This can be anything from creative part usage, composition of shape and color, degree of detail, general message that is trying to be conveyed, etc. It’s kind of like judging art. Sure size is a part of it, but it’s one of many elements that go into a project.”

If I become an AFOL, I think I would want to be like William. LEGO building to him is all about the challenge, as well as having fun throughout the experience. When I asked him why he built, he told me,

“First, I need to build for myself. If I don’t like what I make I can’t expect others to feel anything from my creation. From there I will build for others, like if I think it will lift their spirits when they are feeling down. I also build for other things. Mainly when my LUG needs a certain type of creation for a major display is a good example. But ultimately it comes back to a need I have to build for myself.”

That makes a lot of sense. Why would I spend so much time on such a transient and relatively unknown medium unless it was mostly for me? Anything I build will get broken down sooner or later to make more pieces available for another creation, no matter how much effort I put into it. All other voices of appreciation would be simply bonuses.

Because of William, I think I’ve slowly discovered the middle ground between immature adults and creative savants: excited hobbyists. If I were an AFOL, I would be eager to build when I have time and willing to purchase LEGO sets if I had the funds. But more than that, I would build to make myself happy.

CONCLUSION

This 1×1 slope, also known as the cheese slope, symbolizes a few of the things I learned about AFOLs by watching them and how they interact. For example, I discovered that their trust of each other extends even into the financial realm, since they rely on each other to obtain the pieces they need outside of conventional methods. The funky attic slope represents the numerous aspects involved in being an AFOL. My interviews showed me that there is no cookie-cutter AFOL, but that each of them has a unique viewpoint. At the same time, they all are united under the LEGO flag, and are guided by the same principles that have guided the LEGO Company even before TLC created the first 2×4 brick. These principles include the pursuit of perfection, as well as the search for creative solutions. What drives this pursuit, this exploration of possibilities within a restrictive medium? Like a jumper plate reveals the middle ground, William helped me see that the only true benefit to be derived from LEGO bricks is what I’ve invested into it.

So here it is. I’m holding the finished product in my hand. I don’t know what it is, exactly. It could be a uniquely-colored Sidney Opera House, or a spaceship transporting red rectangles. But being an AFOL isn’t always about what I can create, it’s about what I can express in LEGO form, inspired by the example set by the Christiansens and other AFOLs. Whether others admire it isn’t really worth asking. It doesn’t matter where I get the bricks from, or if I consider them toys or not, or even if I build my own creations. All that matters is if LEGO is the most enjoyable way for me to explore my creativity.

Works cited in this article:

If you would like to share your own thoughts, and experiences with the LEGO hobby, feel free to share in the comment section below. 🙂

And you might also like to check out the following related posts:

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

ninja5 May 15, 2014 at 10:31 AM

Wow. Amazingly well written article. I think it accurately sums up the experience of being an FOL.

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legostuff71 May 15, 2014 at 12:42 PM

It’s a great article. LEGO brings people together to create and to talk about what you can to with LEGO( and that’s a lot). It’s interesting , with one LEGO brick it doesn’t look like much but, when you put a lot of LEGO bricks together it becomes something. Like people. We work together ( sharing building tips, share ideas on how or what to build, etc.) as a team and LEGO is what brought us together. Oh, by the way we should come up with a name for people that don’t understand the concept of LEGO ( like “muggles” in Harry Potter for the non magic folk).

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admin May 15, 2014 at 1:00 PM

There is already an “official” name for people who don’t understand LEGO. They are called NLP, which stands for Non-LEGO-Person, or Non-LEGO-Parent. Check the LEGO Dictionary here: http://thebrickblogger.com/2011/01/lego-dictionary-advanced-terms/

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Beardless Dwarf May 15, 2014 at 1:38 PM

Wow that was awesome! Very well written and interesting.

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admin May 15, 2014 at 2:34 PM

Yeah, I thought so too. 🙂

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BLProductions May 15, 2014 at 4:41 PM

Nicely written article. 🙂 It’s very good insight, I find it tells me quite a bit about the AFOL community, since I really don’t know much about it.
I have one question, though. What is a Jumper Plate? This piece?
http://brickset.com/parts/4211451 😕

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admin May 15, 2014 at 5:01 PM

Yes, that is correct. I have considered adding a picture of each of the elements Andrew mentioned in the article, but then I decided against it.

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BLProductions May 15, 2014 at 5:43 PM

Ok, thanks. I knew all the pieces except that one (which I usually call “center-hooks”).
On-topic, I was thinking, isn’t the 2×2 brick more popular symbolically than the 2×4 brick? I mean, it is the base of LEGO’s symbol, the “symbol” of LDD, and is in multiple Lego.com pictures. Yet people say the 2×4 is the most iconic piece. It could be, but what about 2x2s? 😕

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admin May 15, 2014 at 8:08 PM

Yeah, my favorite is 2×2 bricks and that’s what I collect in different colors, however it is also true that the most iconic LEGO brick is the 2×4. I guess probably because it is more brick shaped. Someone like Maxx or Gary could answer this question better. I do know that it is 2×4 bricks that were for example used for color testing and such.

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Håkan May 16, 2014 at 4:59 AM

What’s an “attick slope”? And is the misspelling intentional?

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Håkan May 16, 2014 at 5:02 AM
admin May 16, 2014 at 10:08 AM

The mis-spelling was my fault. Somehow my spell-checker didn’t catch it. As far as which slope it is, as far as I know it is this one: http://www.bricklink.com/catalogItem.asp?P=3049

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AndrewT May 16, 2014 at 1:21 PM

Yep! That’s the piece. When I submitted this paper to my professor, I gave him the final “build” so he could refer to it as I discussed the pieces.

BTW, thanks everyone for your encouraging comments!

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Bohrok Tru May 16, 2014 at 1:38 PM

Awesome article/essay dude!! What did your you professor give it?

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admin May 16, 2014 at 1:38 PM

Oh, that’s a nice touch! I’m sure your professor appreciated that, especially if he ever built with LEGO! 🙂

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NinjagoNerd36 May 18, 2014 at 6:29 PM

Bravo! Very well written essay. If anyone tried pulling a TL;DR they are missing out!

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Allen May 21, 2014 at 3:44 AM

It was a great essay and I was glad that I could help out with it.

Reply

admin May 21, 2014 at 9:30 AM

Allen, nice to have you, and that we could participate in a fun project like this.

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