Time to freak out. The Lego Group, makers of the colorful building blocks, posted only $5.8 billion in sales last year. That’s an 8 percent drop following 13 years of continuous growth! This comes after the CEO of eight months stepped down, 1,400 jobs were slashed, and The Lego Ninjago Movie suffered the weakest premiere of the movie franchise, with critics wondering if the creative formula had run dry. What the heck!!
You could name quite a few causes for this company slump, from their overextension into Hollywood to a market saturated with Star Wars garbage to a general dip in consumer purchasing power. But when you get right down to it, you’ve got to blame the kids, specifically boys between the ages of 5 and 9 years old, who remain the most dedicated Lego-heads. Oh, sure, girls could easily save the brand — the “Women of NASA” set was a runaway hit, quickly selling out as the number one toy on Amazon — yet there’s still significant emphasis on traditionally lad-oriented fare like all-terrain trucks and police helicopters. The tykes, for their part, evidently aren’t as interested as they had been, and Lego now has “too much” stock it can’t unload.
As a former Lego addict myself, I was tempted to blame, like, iPads. Surely interlocking plastic bricks aren’t as engaging to kids who’ve been mobile-gaming since they developed motor functions. Then I started looking at the stuff Lego put out last year, and I had to laugh. I mean, what third-grader wouldn’t throw a fit when their mom or dad refuses to buy them this sterile $80 model of the Guggenheim? Or hey, imagine how fun it would be to have your friends over to play with your Lego ship in a bottle. Wait, wait, what about — and this is real — a DJ platform decorated for a Justice League Anniversary Party? Are they all married to each other? No idea! OK, I guess it’s something from The Lego Batman Movie, but it doesn’t even come with Batman! Or Wonder Woman! I may not know the first thing about parenting, but I’m wildly confident that no child wants this.
Then there are the Lego products that license the company’s direct virtual competitor, Minecraft. That’s right: they’re paying to use the trademark of an open-ended video game so they can develop severely limited real-world versions that cost five times more. What Minecraft Lego environment can you get for less than the $26.95 that’ll buy you the software? Um, a chicken coop. CHICKEN. COOP. It’s amazing to see toy analysts claim that kids today “like to be taken by the hand” and sold these niche themed sets rather than given a bucket of loose generic Lego, seeing as the Minecraft phenomenon, most pronounced among 5-to-15-year-olds, is predicated on a space in which you can assemble pretty much whatever you want, with little besides your imagination as guide.
That won’t stop Europe’s largest toymaker from attempting to crack the digital-native generation by merging their signature shapes with high-tech gadgetry, of course — because if there’s a strategy that works for every brand, it’s trying to be what they’re not. (Lego actually tried to conquer the internet before Minecraft hit the scene, with Lego Universe, but shuttered the collaboratively designed realm after two years because they literally couldn’t moderate it — and in particular struggled with the impossible task of editing out all the dicks that players assembled inside the game.)
I’ll concede that Lego Boost, a reconfigurable robot model that you can control via smartphone app, is pretty cool. But if I’m honest about the nature of my Lego nerdery as a 9-year-old, it had nothing to do with batteries or grooming for engineering school. I was happiest flipping through Lego Magazine (yes, I had a subscription), scoffing at the reader-submitted designs that changed a single detail to make it different from what you saw on the box, deciding to make my own radical ski-mounted spaceship for exploring ice planets, taking a blurry photo of it with my family’s piece-of-shit camera, and mailing it off like I was going to receive a genius grant for my troubles. I once took an afternoon to write the Lego people a literal goddamn letter asking why they were so expensive, well beyond what I could afford on my pitiful allowance, and found their answer regarding the importance of quality control eminently satisfying. These episodes paint me as a delicate indoor weirdo, certainly, though I believe they capture the humble bureaucratic essence of Lego fandom — I never needed fancy Lego, just more of them, more to classify and organize, more to mix and match and hoard against loss.
Maybe I’m wrong, and Lego no longer thrills by way of their anonymous and permutative simplicity. Maybe kids do crave Lego translations of existing superhero toys and sci-fi action figures and junior coding gizmos. Even so, based on my experience, there’s a strong case for going back to the basics, providing the elements to construct settings and scenarios that aren’t more Disney tie-ins but associative, intuitive, and free-ranging. Lego used to operate outside the wall-to-wall pop culture kids absorb daily, and as a pioneering force of its own. It was a blank canvas for young minds. Now it’s a tentacle of marketing for businesses that decide how those minds ought to fantasize.