Technopunks / Lego Blazes Trail to Techno-kids

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A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away – one without Internet, virtual reality or Big Data – millions of children played with Legos. They snapped the colorful blocks into place on top of flat green surfaces and adorned the resulting structures with tiny figurines that didn’t do much besides move their arms and legs up and down.

In the absence of cable television, video game consoles or computer joysticks, children sat around for hours, assembling, disassembling and reassembling their own realities. The worlds they built were made as much of imagination as plastic.   

Children could have happily lived in this dream world for eternity. But then television arrived, followed by video games and finally – horror of horrors – the Internet. A nightmarish world of youth recreation began to emerge, with Legos becoming little more than a quaint relic of a simpler time.

The progeny of the digital age didn’t have the patience to struggle with miniature construction projects involving hundreds of little pieces. As they began abandoning Lego sets, the Danish producer of colorful building blocks faced its biggest-ever budget crisis. The company hit rock bottom in 2005, recording a loss of $360 million. It was at this nadir that Lego executives made a series of brilliant decisions – reinventing the company to compete with digital dalliances.

Some new managerial methods were introduced, but the real revolution occurred in content and platforms. Playing with Legos no longer means building miniature gas stations, houses and dinosaurs. Legos now focus on new fetishes, like "SpongeBob Squarepants," "Star Wars," "Harry Potter" and "Pirates of the Caribbean." When Disney announces a new movie or television series, Lego has a new set out before it even launches, ready to reap profits while fan enthusiasm is at its peak.

But the company didn’t just create a Lego SpongeBob; it also created a digital Lego SpongeBob. In addition to plastic blocks, it now produces computer games where the heroes are animated Lego characters who live in Lego worlds. The tie-ins between original films, Lego toy kits and the Lego computer games, hook children on both the Lego and Disney brands at once.

The next step is, of course, the creation of original, Lego-inspired media, like the animated television series "Ninjago." Lego and Warner Brothers are jointly producing a film, to hit theaters in 2014, about a group of Lego characters that must come together to fight the forces of evil.

Construction work is typically considered men's work in the West. So it's not surprising that Lego is also traditionally viewed as a game for boys. But even here, the world's third largest toymaker has decided to overturn the status quo.

To appeal to the fairer half of its potential customer base, Lego has begun creating and marketing games for girls. A new line of toys called “Lego Friends” includes more blocks in colors like pink and purple and characters like Stephanie, who drives a convertible, and a dog named Maya, which lives in a kennel and is raising puppies.

Gender equity appears to pay. In September 2012, Lego reported its profits had increased 35 percent for the first half of 2012 to $337 million. Sales during the same period increased 24 percent to $1.5 billion. The company attributes its growth largely to the success of the new girl-oriented products.

Legos’ integration of different types of media has brought children full circle – back to blocks and board games. Lego lovers can now battle monsters, vampires and wizards in a colorful, plastic-covered board game with an onboard computer. It has similar rules to a computer game with the same theme. To advance from square to square in Heroica, players must roll dice, kill monsters with weapons they manage to purchase or pick up along the way and complete levels. After each level, they take the board apart and build the next level, just like in the computer game.   

Enthusiasts are no longer just between the ages of four and 14. A big trend online is to create home-made stop-motion videos where the scenery and characters are made from Legos. There is a video clip on YouTube that reenacts, second-for-second, Michael Jackson's "Thriller" music video. And last month, just a few hours after Felix Baumgartner broke the skydiving world record by jumping from the stratosphere, a video reenacting the event in Legos appeared online.

Techno punks the world over can thank Lego for ensuring they have the pleasure of watching their children construct Anakin Skywalker’s Jedi Starfighter space ship or Spiderman nemesis Dr. Octopus’ nefarious science lab. And they can rest easy, knowing that the next generation is learning the skills and passions that will one day make them techno punks themselves. As Lego has long understood, a techno punk is by necessity a Lego freak.

Compete with TV, computer games and the Internet has Lego. Credit: AFP
Lego now makes products from pixels as well as plastic blocks.Credit: AP