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back to article It's Lego's 80th birthday party, but only the boys are invited

Imagination-fostering Lego is 80 years old this month and far from its roots as a creativity-inspiring construction toy for girls and boys. Way back in 1932, Ole Kirk Kristiansen, a Danish joiner and carpenter, found he wasn't making enough money from carpentry anymore and decided to try making and selling wooden toys instead. …

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Anonymous Coward

Titter ye not

>And Lego today says that it spends a lot of time finding out exactly what it is that children want so it can give it to them.

Ooo, err, no, missus, Call Esther Rantzen

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Only a few days ago I was with a friend who is a mother of four who was commenting on the way that Lego was very boy oriented now. With the special kits mainly turned to very gung-ho pirates and Star Wars figures there wasn't as much screaming out to the girls. While her girls busily use the boys' kits, the very few generic or girl-oriented ones often nothing over alternate toys. Ironically the girls may end up being better builders as they turn to plasticine and found objects to build things rather than following the strongly-templated kits marketed to boys.

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Childcatcher

Market stratification makes me sad

even when it works. I recall the good old days when Lego was just a big bucket of a few kinds of bricks and what I built was entirely up to me and my imagination - so after visiting an old harbour fort it was tunnels and gun emplacements for a month, then back to skyscrapers, etc. About all there was to covet was an even bigger bucket of bricks.

Which of course is an absolute clanger highlit in Marketing 101 - what, the customer goes away happy and stays away!? No, no, no! Subdivide & upsell, make sure that the product is sufficiently specialised that complimentary products are required. If all else fails, make it battery powered and/or easy to break!

My girls have yet to graduate beyond Duplo but so far they're playing merrily, building barns, fire stations, parking garages (with OSHA-condemmed access ramps, cars tumbling down 60 degree slopes), towers, in short whatever they can think of and/or badger parents into helping with. And we'll do our damndest to preserve this idyll; the time may well come when they want the dolls in the house but in the house that THEY designed and built!

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Linux

Re: Market stratification makes me sad

Nonsense. Even 30 and 40 years ago Lego sets were still kits intended to build a particular thing like a space ship or police station. The only thing that has really changed over the years is that major movies are now being licensed by Lego and it's competitors.

The whole "bucket of bricks" versus a kit is as it has always been: up to the person.

Besides, Legos have always been too expensive for a "bucket of bricks" approach.

Even now your "bucket of bricks" is likely heavily augmented by competitors that can now finally make compatible bricks. Talk about the long reach of patents...

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Boffin

Re: Market stratification makes me sad

"Even 30 and 40 years ago Lego sets were still kits intended to build a particular thing like a space ship or police station."

I'd tend to agree but the difference is that the kits of 30-40 years ago were generally regular Lego blocks with instructions and the correct quantities to build a model, occasionally with some stickers, but they could be made in conjunction with just about everything else. Today's kits usually have a fair number of custom blocks and/or colours.

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Happy

>> Even 30 and 40 years ago Lego sets were still kits

Interesting info, thanks!

I actually teethed on "Torro" brand blocks which were some small company's spin on the basic Lego block forms (with some amusing additions so not purely a knock-off). Since nobody in El Reg circles will ever have heard of Torro I elided the two, falsely it seems since a great big bag of Torro blocks was fairly affordable and as far as my long-suffering parents ever let me know they didn't do kits (but perhaps all the other kids were sniggering at the only boy on the block without the Torro 1:1 scale Millennium Falcon, with working space-crapper)

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Market stratification makes me sad

"What you need vs what you like" is an issue.

My first memories of lego were indeed the bucket of bricks variety. We built large rectangular space ships which dropped bombs. Then we were given some "space" lego for Christmas which had men in it. All of a sudden, the little doors which had stored the our previous "spacecraft" were no longer adequate. We used to have mini spaceships (two flat rectangles crossed like a T) but the advent of more realistic people spoilt that idea, so I understand what you mean. The more explicitness you provide, the less scope there is for imagination. Even if the kids think the prefab shapes are cool (and want them, and pester their parents for them), they impinge on the imagination, because what the kid makes has no hope of competing with what the big corporate can do. Cars suddenly needed to fit "people" instead of being the funkiest shape that would hold together.

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Re: Market stratification makes me sad

It's Lego, not Legos.

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Headmaster

Posting this here so it appears above the comments making another basic error:

It's Technic, not Technix!

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Re: Market stratification makes me sad

I didn't know anyone who had any kits like that 40 years ago.

I had lots of basic geometric bricks, and the only specialised things were windows and roof tiles which inevitably got repurposed as monster eyes and hair/appendages.

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Re: Market stratification makes me sad

Legi for purists.

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If this is true it's sad

Put it this way: I don't want it to be true that the only way to make toys appeal to girls is slather on the pink and a focus on hair care. I always found Lego absolutely fascinating as a little boy, and I wish it all the best now.

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as a child of the 80's lego (and then technix) was a huge part of my life. I recall having a mix of boys and girls as friends and the girls being just fine with lego. This predated most of the specialised packs of lego however, until technix you mostly just got boxes of pieces rather than more gender defined model packs. Lego was popular right up until we found more interesting ways to pass the time with each other (although given the chance I will still play with lego :-) ).

I would concur with those above, it is likely an inherrent gender bias in their products. The kits as so prefab these days they are likely to lose the boys interests as well.

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That's my fear...

I was born at the beginning of the 80s, and I grew up with Legos. Pirates, Castle, Space... the focus was less on the minifigs, and more on the bricks themselves. The minifigs used to be carbon copies; get a dozen Imperials from the Pirates theme, and you'd probably only have two or three different characters. The Blacktron minifigs from the Space theme were almost completely identical. And regardless, everyone was smiling; from the iconic Lego head to the mustachioed pirates, everyone was wearing a smile, whether they were sunbathing in a hammock, shooting the enemy, or being eaten by a shark. Even the glow-in-the-dark ghosts smiled. And that was fine; my imagination filled in the expressions.

These days, though, even the City folk have grins or grimaces. The focus has shifted from building sets to 'adventure sets' - copies of movies, or comic books, or card games. When I played Pirates, I didn't play Pirates of the Caribbean. When there was a Space war, it wasn't in the Star Wars universe. When I built a castle, it wasn't Hogwarts. I didn't copy; I created.

The same applies to gender bias; girls don't need pastels. When I played Legos with girls, they helped build the castle, and the queen ran its creation; when we played Pirates, there was a ship captained by Cutlass Sue. The girls didn't complain about the minifigs not having hair to braid; instead, they took over roles that women held anyway - doctors and nurses, soldiers and sailors, leaders and followers. Frankly, girls that would buy pink-and-pastels Legos will probably buy the latest fashion doll first, so I wouldn't put a lot of effort into making sets for them. Lego shouldn't worry about making sets for boys and sets for girls... it should worry about making sets that grab the imagination. Not copies of movies or comic books or card games, but their own creations. And if they want to copy something, try to classic books; I wouldn't mind a 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea Lego set, or War of the Worlds, or even Tarzan...

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Unfortunately...

Unfortunately, too many of today's LEGO sets for boys also "minimize... actual construction". So that part of the problem with the set in question seems to be a fault that isn't due to gender bias.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Unfortunately...

Buy the bigger packs, they have plenty of construction needed! I actually really like the packs, so does my son!

although I would say they do need more female mini-figures not so many men... SOME kits are designed for really young kids just getting into lego after duplo, and they do limit the construction, but other than that there is no difference than what I had in the 80's well actually there are more bits and their usually stronger!

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Re: Unfortunately...

Very true. These days the box has 4 blocks and some stickers. Lego for me was a huge cardboard box full of lego. It wasn't (until technix, and even then there was that continual quest to build a working helicopter) that you had a box that was supposed to be a car, you had a huge box that could be whatever you wanted it to be with no prompting. When the girls were there they helped shape the end result. So heman or liono's castle might have an annex for barbie or shera but the goal was never gifted to you.

I took my kids to a lego store and its full or prefab junk, I asked where the sets of blocks are and was led to the back of the store and showwn every freakin kit on the way before I got to some stupidly overpriced woefully small 'buckets'. It's like kids aren't allowed to think or imagine for themselves.

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Re: Unfortunately...

"These days the box has 4 blocks and some stickers" ... I'm afraid I disagree. Even the smallest sets you get free in the newspapers typically have 30+ parts. Lego nowadays is much more theme oriented ... some do tend towards the "only builds the model on the box" type e.g. star wars, but there are many more themes which actively encourage many different builds, e.g the "creator" theme is well worth a look.

Lego has now specifically targetted girls with the "Lego Friends" theme ... it has pastel colours and mainly female mini-figs. Whilst its a shame that it is perceived that girls will only go for pink stuff, this is been borne out by the research Lego put into this, and by the fact the Friends theme is *very* popular. And if it means my daughter gets into playing with Lego, I'll take that over "Bratz" any day ...

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Unfortunately...

True, but with those 30 pieces you can build only 1 thing.

At least in the early days of technix, the box would have a bulldozer, but you coould built 2 or 3 other things with it (plus whatever else your imagination desired).

Duplo still has that charm, we've received lots of duplo from parents who thought their kids had outgrown it, and even now (with the kids well above the duplo target age group) every now and then there is a big duplo day, and you get Hogswart, the train station and a pirate castle all in the same room .

(ok, only a loving parent would recognize them as such)

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Re: Unfortunately...

They want you to build one thing. It's more of a model kit then a construction set.

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Re: Unfortunately...

Not entirely correct. The smaller sets like say 3219 (ignoring the minifig sets) come with 10-12 pieces which includes the prefab bits. Midsized technics kits (say 8069? the jcb) usually have around 600 pieces. Check out brickset.com as noted above, even lego agreed they went too far.

My lego used to come from bulk sets (not sure it was sold ay other way?) or jumble sales. I couldn't begin to imagine what it would cost these days to fill a huge box with lego.

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Thumb Up

Re: Unfortunately...

> Unfortunately, too many of today's LEGO sets for boys also "minimize... actual construction"

To some extent yes ... remember when I came back to Lego when my sons started to get lego sets (and inherited the small suitcase of my old lego that my parents still had in their loft!) that I'd get part way through a build wondering how they were going to manage to link two bits together as they appeared to need to join at a "non-standard" angle, turn the instruction page and discover "oh, they made a special piece to do that". From memories of what I'd had to do as a child it just seemed a bit like cheating to me!

However, in the bigger sets there is a serious amount of building still left (though they do still seem a little to keen in my mind to throw in a bag of specials bits to handle all the difficult sections)

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Re: Unfortunately...

"True, but with those 30 pieces you can build only 1 thing."

Which I acknowledged, but also pointed out there are other sets which actively encourage multiple builds eg. creator. The problem I think is one of perception. As the earlier poster noted, he had to go to the back of the store to find the non-specialist themes., but they *are* there, you just have to get past all the Ninjago and Bionicle nonsense to find them ... its not Lego's fault that the popularity of certain themes makes shops push them to the front.

And Lego was always relatively expensive, I remember the old Technic Car Chassis, it cost about £50 in 1980, which would be a lot of money now. But what a set!

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But. but.... but

What about the Playmobil?

Or didn't it happen

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Two problems...

I played with LEGO a LOT as a child, but my elder sister wasn't interested. So I don't think it's a new phenomenon.

Now I'm a parent, I've got two real problems with LEGO. Firstly, it's REALLY expensive. Any model of any substance is £25 or more. It makes it very difficult to buy as a birthday present for someone else's child, because it's too expensive. The smaller sets are incidental "stocking filler" types, but are still too expensive to be bought as an incidental thing like a bribe for good behaviour. These two factors combine to largely eliminate the mass-aggregation of sets that I had as a boy.

Secondly (and this is something James May commented on when he built his LEGO house) too many of the pieces are single-use. In order to provide visual richness to the end product, the typical set has many parts that are suitable only for that set. This further dilutes the original aim of LEGO of it being "a new toy every day." Every set seems to be a model, an end-goal clearly in site. I remember getting sets that were basically big boxes full of bricks with a few ideas. Now you have multi-page build manuals, bagged component groups and a over-reliance on the construction being a process that must be followed exactly to achieve a pre-determined goal, rather than it being general principles of construction that allow the child to make what he (or she) has in their head.

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Re: Two problems...

"Secondly (and this is something James May commented on when he built his LEGO house) too many of the pieces are single-use."

My 6 year old would disagree - he likes the kits (got a space shuttle last year), but once the kit is built, it gets dismantled and the parts are used for all sorts of crazy contraptions that he conjures in his imagination. :)

He also love paper jets, water balloons & cardboard boxes :)

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Happy

Re: Two problems...

I came here to say the exact same thing. Too much of the kits seem proprietary at the moment. I’m an engineer now and attribute a lot of my developed skills to being grown from a child where I would play with all manner of construction kits (Lego, technic, K'nex, mechano) and build what was on the box followed by thinking about what from this model could I build on to something else! My favorite was a technic pneumatics lorry with electric motor that operated a crane.

Now with all the proprietary kits, I fail to see how you can have the same freedom to build whatever you want. However, perhaps it’s not as bad as I think if the people are saying their kids build all kinds of monster contraptions. That’s exactly what I did :)

For a bit of a chuckle and some reassurance in Lego, this is what someone here decided to build and show at our learning and Development centre. Unfortunately, I wasn't directly involved in it, as much as Id have liked to have been!

http://www.rolls-royce.com/civil/news/2012/120709_lego_jet_engine.jsp

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Angel

Re: Two problems...

> Secondly (and this is something James May commented on when he built his LEGO house) too many of the pieces are single-use.

This depends on what you buy. It is still possible to buy kits of standard, non-specialized, pieces. We recently bought one for me^Wmy son.

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Happy

Re: Two problems...

Hi,

I buy Lego for my children (and me too, I must admit) now in kiloware. I get on ebay, at local bring and buy sales, from ads in supermarkets and so on. Because Lego is so durable, even 40+ year old pieces are still usable. I am thankful that parents don't want to keep their children's collections anymore and are so willing to part with them at a fraction of teh new price. New Lego is not cheap but there is good value in secondhand collections.

My girls (5½ and 4) are slowly getting into it as an aid to role-play. It helps that they also like princesses and pirates. A few judiciously bought new boxes (pirates and some pink blocks) and all is well. The unique pieces do have their place. Doors and windows are greatly welcomed, for example.

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Cheap Lego

1. Car boot sale

2. Take bricks apart and tie into pillow case.

3. Wash on gentle in washing machine

Result - Cheap, hygenic Lego for kids.

(Me, I chewed the lead paint off Meccano whan I was a kid!)

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Re: Two problems...

Thanks for that link, absolutely brilliant!

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Coat

Re: Cheap Lego

So that's how you clean second hand Lego. My wife went mad when I tipped a load in the dishwasher...

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Role play

That's a very good point - my two girls (now 6 and 8) are lego users since birth (we started with Quattro, through Duplo and now onto the hard stuff)

The way they play with Lego is very different to the way I did: my aim was realistic and technically challenging construction, even more so when Technic came along (and I won a competition which got me the car chassis of the time - the rear-engined flat four one...).

They make approximations of birds, aeroplanes, cars, whatever: but they then make up stories and scenarios around those models and that's more important to them than the building.

I suspect that Lego's marketing people have seen the same thing, and the Lego Friends stuff fits that pattern very nicely. It could do with a bit more depth, perhaps, than beauty and shopping, but I think the kids can work that out for themselves, especially if they have a bucket of bricks on hand for the cars, aeroplanes, ships etc.

I haven't bought my girls and Friends yet, although we did get a couple of the pink buckets for them - that just adds a few more colours into the mix.

And their little brother is showing balance - trucks and diggers all the way for him :)

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Happy

I was rather interested to see that......

.....almost half the adult purchasers of Meccano are women. I freely confessed that if I had been asked to guess what the proportion was I would not have got near the correct answer.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: I was rather interested to see that......

Yes, but "buyers" is not necessarily the same as "users"... (I do hope the ratio holds up for those, too).

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Boffin

Lego improved a lot over the last decade

Up until about 2003 there was a proliferation of single-use pieces that made 'free construction' almost impossible. If you followed the five easy steps of the instructions you ended up with a great model, but the pieces were useless for anything else.

However, as described in this interview ( http://www.monocle.com/sections/business/Web-Articles/QA-with-the-CEO-of-Lego/ ) they realised that they had gone too far and started by drastically reducing the number of different types of pieces. As a result a lot of current 'LEGO city' models use lots of pieces that can be used to build just about anything. (Ask my kids!).

However, 'LEGO technic' haven't followed the same course. Their current models (e.g. 8110 Unimog) is a brilliant working copy of the legendary off-road vehicle, but it's far too complicated to build anything else. (At least for an 8-year-old.) When I was a kid, you could buy sets with just gears (e.g. 9610), but today there's nothing like that on offer.

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Re: Lego improved a lot over the last decade

Technic truly was amazing. A working jcb, the walker from aliens etc truly great designs. You could even buy a book with extra ideas, but for the most part, when I had it, it was just a giant box full of potential. Whilst the designs were amazing, they just taught you the skills and techniques to build what you wanted. If you built a really skinny frame and used handmade balsa blades you could just about get a twin rotor copter off the ground. Sad to hear it went downhill. You didn't need it to look perfect with flushfit bodypanels (it's not like landrover ever bothered with them), just being generic pieces meant you had complete freedom to remake anything, only whilst lego lacked functionality, with motors and pneumatics technics brought functionality.

Have they taken away the ability to order individual technics parts?

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Unhappy

This is nothing new.

The over gendering of children has gotten out of hand in the last 20 years. It seems since I grew up in the late 60's and the 70's that sexist stereotyping in marketing has gotten completely out of hand. Have you been to a toy store recently? There are toy high heels for SIX year olds!

There is a strong drive from an earlier and earlier age to sexualize and genderize children, their activities and their clothing, to the point where its amazing anyone gets a childhood at all. I know a lot of adults who admit they wanted more choices in toys as children, but between marketing, peer groups, and parents terrified their children would turn up not NORMAL if their girl asked for Hotweels cars, or their boy who asked for a craft kit or ghods forbid a DOLL had it made clear to them that their parents were very upset at them for "inappropriate" choices. The children learn rapidly they are rewarded "and punished" for the wrong choices.

Children learn early whats EXPECTED of them. And the choices they make are as driven by cultural expectations as by actual desires. A good friend of mine works in day care, and we discuss this regularly. Most children in her day care play with everything with great imagination, till they get to kindergarten or first grade till their peer groups pound home "sometimes literally" what is, and is not conceived as appropriate. In a matter of months, children she have worked with since infancy suddenly have a very conservative and hard line attitude over what is perceived ans correct and incorrect toys. This is not innate, this is cultural, and its getting worse, not better.

Children want to be accepted by their peers and their parents, and they learn rapidly that a cookie cutter image gets them rewards, and rocking the boat gets them punished. Many of them even convince themselves over time that it was their ideas all along. Its just one of the ways society has issues. Like taping bows on bald babies out of sheer terror someone might accidentally mis-pronoun their 2 week old. The people buying Harley Davidson branded shoes for children too young to walk are no better.

These neuroses belong to the parents, its just a pity they can't let their children find out who they are before marketing assigns them a label.

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Re: This is nothing new.

What's annoying is that even toys that are inherently not gender-specific, such as arts and crafts, and now also Lego, are marketed to the exclusion of the other sex. Most craft toys are now themed towards girls, which is something that I never experienced in my own childhood (1970s/1980s).

Lego used to be the one good example - a toy that was whatever you wanted it to be. Girls and boys did tend to make different things, though -- I remember the girls mostly making houses and gardens, with we boys mostly making cars, planes and rockets. But the point is that they can actually play together, which is something that today's toys create a barrier against (ninja extreme-snowboarding hair salon prom-date scenarios excepted, naturally).

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Anonymous Coward

Re: This is nothing new.

As a parent of a girl toddler, I can attest to this all to well, it's all either blue or pink and action figures vs. dolls and prams (and try watching children's TV for an even more extreme version of this, all those programmes are shockingly unashamedly sexist), to a really horrifying degree (you'd honestly think it was the 50s). I just have to ignore the gender bias and get the little one things that look "fun" to me (and I'm mostly right), irrespective of whom it's "targeted" at. She certainly doesn't seem to care about what she's meant to like and not...

Heck knows how that's going to stand up to peer pressure, going forward.

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Boffin

Ah the fun I had with Lego.

I did a mixture of things, some building and then modifying models and some straight up inventing.

A couple of modifications that I remember were converting a car to be a working right hand drive model or swapping out the dummy engine in my loading shovel for a pair of electric motors that drove it and powered the pneumatics.

I think my favourite DIY one was a hill climber grabber crane tank thing like a CEV. It had enough traction and torque to climb up (pretty smooth) boards that I'd put up our stairs at home and a pneumatic grabber arm/crane mounted on a turntable up top. That used all three of my motors for driving, turntable and compressor, all of my pneumatics (boom*2, reach and grab) and it was brilliant :)

More recently, we had to use some of the Mindstorms stuff in my degree, that was so much easier once you ditched the crappy Lego visual programming interface and went to C.

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MrT
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Mindstorms...

... is a great tool. I still use the original RCX kits with Y7 (11yr-olds), and the go from nothing to understanding systems and programming in 20 hours - sumo battles and twin-sensor line followers, learning about modifying the machine for better accuracy and the program for things like series or parallel sensing and control. It really inspires the students to get results and they all look forward to seeing who does best. In my experience the prior use of LEGO is about 50/50 between boys and girls, but I scatter the LEGOistas around to make sure they are not in one supercluster...

We still stick to using the LEGO software, but do move on to Scratch and Alice later in Y8 and Y9, which gives us a path to Squeak and ObjC if we need to extend it into GCSEs. That's where the divisions occur, because up to the point where we lose the visual drag'n'drop methods, most students are okay with programming.

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Re: Mindstorms...

@MrT I have the Mindstorms RCX 1.5 (circa 1999) but lost the CD... it's extraordinarily hard to find either the CD or a download of said software (ie I have a useless microcontroller, some motors and a collection of Technic parts in the garage somewhere)... I'm open to suggestions for alternatives too, although the simple graphical interface would be ideal for my 6 year old daughter.

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MrT
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Re: Mindstorms...

I use a lot of links to BotMag for the in-class stuff. One like this shows a few alternatives like the RobotC app - about 1/3 down the page. It actually looks a lot simpler as pure code, but the Y7 groups mostly prefer the icons!

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MrT
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Re: Mindstorms...

Actually, searching about I see that version 2.5.4 that I use is now out of date. There's a v2.9 out here for US users and the price is only $23. Given that the UK price is £65 for the same thing, it's worth seeing if anyone in the US can offer a shipping address since the US dealer won't ship to UK...

Not sure if this is an upgrade to the original, which means you'd still need the old software key from the CD cover, or if it comes ready to run.

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Re: Mindstorms...

Thanks for the response - actually, you've reminded me I have LabView experience and access to the software... I'll check for availability of a module to drive the RCX

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Re: Mindstorms...

Apparently RoboLab is written in LabView - I'd forgotten about the fact the Mindstorms (RCX/NXT) systems are based on LabView... might be worth pursuing that to get things working again.

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MrT
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Happy

Re: Mindstorms...

Cheers - glad to help. Mindstorms has already been ported to LabVIEW - check this link for details. They have a patched version of the latest software on that platform, which seems to offer much quicker program speed even on the old RCX. I think there's still an issue with the USB IR Tower not working on 64-bit as well, if that's an issue (IIRC just Win7).

Now, if there was just a way of making the old big brick remember it's firmware when the batteries die...

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Re: Mindstorms...

I can't remember whether I used NXC or NQC for it, but by the looks of things you can use NQC with the older RCX stuff too:

http://bricxcc.sourceforge.net/nqc/

I don't know whether you'd need to have drivers or something form the original CD though.

If you send me a PM I'll look out my RCX CD next time I visit my parents and copy it for you.

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Good on lego for taking care of business

Lego is a business and it's first concern is profit. To make profits you have to know your consumers and for Lego those consumers are boys. So what? The only reason that this article was written, especially with the tiresome sexism angle, is that the company was not launching a campaign for girls. If they were, this author would be singing the praises of a company so enlightened, that they were throwing good advertising money at a target group that would never make it worthwhile.

Lego would possibly have gone bankrupt if they had not reconnected with boys, the group that actually made them money, yet they are chastised here for daring to speak of it. May as well advise businesses to market footballs to girls and ballet shoes to boys and watch those companies lose profits accordingly.

Boys and girls are different and this is fine. One of the first lessons of parenthood, is that it's CHILDREN who decide what they like, NOT their parents. Parents buy trucks for their sons and dolls for their daughters because that's what they choose to play with, not what parents are forcing them to play with. Buy a typical boy a doll and he'll stick it in a catapult and fly it across the room.

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