Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Block Party: A Look at Adult Fans of LEGO


LEGO toys are widely recognized as a staple of western children’s culture, particularly for boys between the ages of 8 and 12. Stroll through the toy section of any major discounter or retail toy store, and you’ll find a wide assortment of LEGO products, from PRIMO and DUPLO blocks for younger children to Bionicle figures and $400 Star Wars Death Star models for the older crowd. The casual shopper, struck by the themes and prices of many of these items, might be moved to wonder whether little boys really do buy these toys. Well, yes, they do, or rather their indulgent middle class parents buy the sets for them, but there’s also another target group that the company has in mind. Many parents and members of the general public may not be aware of it, but LEGO products also boast a large, devoted, and well-organized adult fan base.  
These adult fans of LEGO, known as “AFOLs” within the LEGO community, have a tremendous impact on the decisions made by The LEGO Company. AFOLs support their hobby through local clubs, conventions, websites, user groups, publications and even an official global ambassador program with The LEGO Company, which gives adult fans a direct line of communication with the industry about product lines, prices, events, and consumer concerns. As a group, adult LEGO enthusiasts form a small but fascinating community within the larger arena of popular culture, and their reigning passions and interests give shape to the decisions made by The LEGO Company and also highlight the cultural significance of certain icons and values within the broader cultural groups to which they belong. The introduction to this community that follows is meant to give those unfamiliar with AFOLs a better sense of who they are and what they do, as well as illustrate the way in which this subgroup of geek culture ties into its wider community and forges connections between a diverse array of other subgroups.
First, it might be useful to offer a brief history of LEGO toys so that we can understand how they came to achieve the iconic status that they enjoy today. According to The Ultimate LEGO Book (1999), the company got its start in the 1930s when Danish carpenter Ole Kirk Christiansen expanded his business to include wooden toys. Named “LEGO” as a contraction of the Danish words “leg godt,” or “play well,” the business made its first plastic building bricks in 1949. Seeing a niche for an expandable toy system, the LEGO Company quickly capitalized on the possibilities represented by the simple brick design, with additional products and sets being developed on a regular basis. By 1959, the modern version of the LEGO brick had been created, and by 1963, the company had moved to using ABS plastic for its products, which allowed for higher quality bricks that fit together better and held their color longer. Mini-figures appeared in 1978, while 1998 saw the release of the first MINDSTORMS robotics set, and the product line continues to expand today, with new sets, new building elements, and other new LEGO themed items becoming available every year. There are even several LEGOLAND theme parks, with one in the U.S. situated near San Diego, and a smaller facility, the LEGOLAND Discovery Center, in Chicago. Although the company has experienced financial ups and downs over the decades, its steady stream of product innovations and new items, coupled with the idea of a persistent toy system, means that children who begin playing with PRIMO blocks as babies can still, in theory, be using those same blocks in conjunction with their MINDSTORMS robots once they reach adolescence and adulthood. The LEGO line is quite literally designed to be a toy system that one never outgrows, which helps to explain why it has accumulated such a large, active adult fan base.
Demographically, the adult fan community tends to be comprised mainly of people who first played with LEGO toys as children, usually left the hobby during some part of adolescence or early adulthood, and then dusted off their tubs and bricks and returned to LEGO building in their twenties and thirties. (The period during which people stop playing with LEGO bricks is called “the dark ages” within the AFOL community.) The LEGO Company does not report numbers or data for AFOLs as a separate part of its customer base, so it is difficult to say with any real precision what the “typical” AFOL spends on the hobby, makes in terms of personal income, or gravitates toward in the way of particular themes or products.  Based on AFOL websites, club memberships, and LEGO events, however, one can sketch out a rough image of the AFOL community as a whole. Typically in their twenties and thirties, AFOLs are most likely to be male, college-educated, and white, although at the global level the Asian AFOL population appears to be growing. AFOLs are by no means limited to the United States. The 2009 LEGO Ambassador program reveals the scope of the worldwide AFOL community; 45 ambassadors from 28 different countries and AFOL groups were selected from the pool of applicants. Most AFOLs self-identify as “geeks” or “nerds,” not merely in terms of their LEGO hobby but in their larger interests, as well, and many AFOLS pursue careers in engineering and high tech fields. AFOL activity and community building depend on the Internet and on computer software programs like LDraw and MLCAD, which allow individuals to design structures digitally and create precise plans for complicated, large scale models. This dependence on technology, coupled with the high number of AFOLs employed in high tech fields, means that the AFOL community as a whole has a far more sophisticated, technologically involved approach to the hobby than the traditional child enthusiast.
This approach can be seen in the kinds of structures that AFOLs build. Original LEGO creations built by fans are referred to as “MOCs,” short for “My Own Creation,” to distinguish them from the kits produced by the company. In the adult community, MOCs are much preferred over kit designs, as they demonstrate the creativity, building skill and collection size of the designer. Unlike children, AFOLs tend to build with an audience in mind; they design and execute MOCs for online viewing or for display at AFOL events. Websites like MOCpages and Classic Castle specialize in giving AFOLs a place to share their creations with other members of the community, while annual conventions like Brickworld and Brickfest allow large numbers of builders to collaborate on huge displays for the public and for other AFOLs.
The size, quality and attention to detail of AFOL creations can be staggering, and, as a result, they often become popular Internet items, appearing on various blogs, news sites, online magazines, and Facebook feeds. Wired Magazine, i09, Gizmodo, and other technology and culture publications frequently feature LEGO creations or LEGO related news. A good example of the newsworthy AFOL MOC would be Sean Kenney’s model of Yankee Stadium. Completed in August 2009, the re-creation uses more than 45,000 bricks and took three years to build. At six feet wide and five feet long, it is a massive structure that includes over 1,700 micro-scale people and hundreds of tiny details, from locker rooms to score boards and even The Simpsons family lined up at one of the stadium entrances. Another popular MOC is Mark Borlase’s huge Hoth diorama, which took four years and roughly 60,000 bricks to complete. Featured on Gizmodo, Geekologie, The Brothers Brick and numerous Star Wars fan sites, the Hoth base includes details like real lights, remote control mechanisms, and even the snowy footprints left by Snowtroopers approaching the base.
While these kinds of large scale creations are not necessarily typical of the average AFOL, they demonstrate the potential of the medium and encourage other adult hobbyists to design larger and more complicated MOCs of their own. AFOLs very often dedicate a whole room of their homes to their hobby, where they can lay out large, permanent structures and build entire towns, villages, or train routes. Over the course of several years, the display will change and grow as the builder adds new features, redesigns old ones, and acquires new elements from sets and kits. These efforts are less likely to draw widespread media attention, but they reveal the commitment to the hobby that AFOLs make, and many postings on AFOL websites and blogs feature photos of “LEGO rooms” and show off the elaborate organizational systems that hobbyists use to keep track of their collections of bricks. MOCs that require thousands of dollars and months or years to build require collectors to organize their materials carefully, and typical AFOLs differ from child LEGO enthusiasts in their obsession with sorting, cataloging and storing their bricks. Many adults admit that they have as much fun organizing their collections as they do building with them, and the best methods for sorting and storing bricks are much debated in AFOL circles.
The idea that adult enthusiasts enjoy sorting as much as building leads to a consideration of the other things that draw adults to the LEGO hobby.  Why do grown-ups play with plastic bricks? In part, of course, the answers remain the same for any kind of adult toy collector: adults collect and enjoy toys for nostalgia, for a sense of belonging to a small but specialized group, and for a prolonged experience of the pleasures of childhood. In this regard, AFOLs have much in common with doll collectors, model train hobbyists, comic book enthusiasts, and baseball card devotees. However, AFOLs differ from these other groups because their chosen toy is a constructive one, where the collector actually builds and shapes the collection into truly unique creations. Model train clubs do some of this same work, but they generally purchase the trains, buildings, and trees that make up their displays, while a LEGO train club builds its entire layout, from engines and cabooses to water towers and depots, literally brick by brick.
The opportunity for creative expression is, therefore, a defining element of the hobby’s appeal. As one AFOL interviewed for this essay pointed out, “With LEGO, anyone can be a sculptor, artist, train model builder, action-figure hero, doll house creator, spaceship designer, mechanized robot programmer… and on and on. LEGO is a medium that unleashes everyone’s creativity – no matter what object or adventure their imagination holds.” In AFOL MOCS, creativity, building technique, and attention to detail matter a great deal; AFOLS also value humor and presentation quality, and a creation that combines all of these elements is sure to attract the community’s admiration.  These values demonstrate the qualities that adult LEGO hobbyists value in themselves as well as in their efforts; they are drawn to the hobby because it allows them to exercise their aesthetic and architectural creativity, awareness of form, eye for detail and sense of humor, preferably all at once.  
As Mark Borlase’s Hoth diorama shows, another important element of the AFOL community is a shared interest in certain pop culture icons and trends. AFOL interests help drive LEGO Company decisions about which themes to produce, especially where licensed products are concerned, and the kinds of things that AFOLs like tend to reflect their position within the larger spheres of geek and Gen X culture. Fan boy culture has taken root over the last several years in many different media venues, and it should come as no surprise that LEGO products have also been influenced.
LEGO Star Wars sets first appeared over a decade ago in 1999, in conjunction with the release of The Phantom Menace, and they have been extremely popular ever since, spawning t-shirts and video games as well as a constant stream of new sets. AFOL devotion to the LEGO Star Wars line allows the toy company to produce and sell remarkably expensive kits, including the Ultimate Collector Series, which features high end sets designed specifically for ages 16 and up. The popular AFOL website From Bricks to Bothans keeps track of all LEGO Star Wars news and provides a public face for that segment of the LEGO community. Recent news includes the release of the new set, Home One, which depicts the Rebel Alliance’s command center from Return of the Jedi. The Star Wars AFOL community had direct influence on the creation of this particular set through polls and surveys as well as the Ambassador program, and it’s clearly not a set designed for the 8-12 year old fan, with its focus on a scene that is basically a committee meeting and its inclusion of obscure characters like Mon Mothma (a middle-aged woman, no less!) and General Nadine, as well as the first ever LEGO Mon Calamari mini-figures.
The recent release of other Star Wars elements, like the long anticipated Tauntaun from The Empire Strikes Back, shows how much the old school, Gen X Star Wars fan base still influences product lines, despite younger fans’ preference for the Clone Wars films and characters. The AFOL demand for a mini-figure scale Tauntaun had been great enough that custom designed versions were popping up online and within the AFOL community, clearly sending a message to the company that money could made by providing its customers with an official model. In 2010, LEGO finally made an official version of the prized creature available in stores, thus prompting the specialty market to move on to other unfilled niches. This cycle can be seen in other LEGO lines, as well; town and castle builders had long wanted farm animal figures for their layouts, but LEGO only offered horses, so secondary suppliers like Brick Forge filled the gap by producing small, high quality runs of cows, pigs, and sheep. In 2008, The LEGO Company finally addressed some of this demand by releasing its own official cows, and in the last two years it has continued to release new animals, including goats, chickens, and new dog figures. These new additions show that the company is responding to demand from the community for a broader and more interesting collection of creatures.
Other themes also demonstrate the overlaps between AFOL, Gen X, and fan boy culture. The Indiana Jones sets were markedly hot in 2010, often selling out at retail stores and LEGO Stores, but the most popular sets were those based on the original three films and not the latest installment. One set in particular seemed intended for the AFOL market; the $90 Temple of Doom set is based on a scene from a twenty-five year old movie that helped to spur the creation of the PG-13 rating, so its appeal to younger children seems uncertain at best. Temple of Doom was the darkest and least popular of the original films, but among adult fans it has its devotees, and the set appeals to AFOLs through its inclusion of Mola Ram and a uniquely costumed Willie Scott as mini-figures.
Other licensed themes have included Batman, Speed Racer, Spiderman, Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, and a line featuring monsters clearly inspired by the classic Universal horror films. Several of these themes also included mini-figures of director Steven Spielberg, along with other elements designed to help customers create their own stop-motion films. While children might certainly enjoy all of these themes, their frame of reference seems to have more in common with fan boy and geek culture at large, and that has been directed by Gen Xer interests. New product lines continue to reflect this influence, with tie-in lines related to popular Hollywood films and comic book heroes premiering each year at San Diego Comic Con. LEGO’s strong presence at Comic Con is itself an indicator of the cultural space being occupied by its perceived fans. The LEGO Company even creates exclusive sets just for the Comic Con event, offering a different set for each day of the convention.
As diverse as the official LEGO offerings have become, AFOLs still expand the toy’s connections to popular culture by creating their own themed worlds and figures. During the years when The Lord of the Rings movies were being released, AFOL re-creations of Helm’s Deep and Orthanc popped up all over the Internet. Star Trek, Halo, Star Craft, and Transformers all have their AFOL devotees, as well. The cultural craze for zombies has not been lost on the AFOL community, either; the LEGO Apocalypse, also called ApocaLEGO, is perhaps the most inventive and macabre of unofficial, AFOL-created themes, with hordes of zombies and cthuloids running amok  through LEGO landscapes designed to be broken, twisted, and bizarre. The LEGO convention BrickCon even features a whole area devoted to this theme, called the Zombie Apocafest. Modified mini-figures reflect AFOL love for the entire spectrum of geek culture: fans make custom LEGO versions of characters from Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, and even Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog. The LEGO Company can never meet this kind of demand, and only a few brands have enough mass-market appeal to be really profitable, but the inherent nature of LEGO bricks and figures means that fans can make whatever they like, and what they like tends to run primarily in this vein.  
Overall, the AFOL community is defined by its creativity and commitment to its medium for self-expression. As the Internet has become a dominant tool for communication and public display, adult LEGO enthusiasts have become more visible to the world at large, and millions of people around the globe can see and appreciate their efforts. The strengthened coherence of the AFOL community has also given it greater sway with The LEGO Company, allowing lifelong, serious fans the opportunity to influence commercial decision-making in an unprecedented way. Most importantly, however, increased visibility and community power help LEGO devotees enjoy their hobby more fully. At the end of the analysis, after all, adults who play with LEGO know that it’s really just about having fun.

NB: The original version of this essay was presented at the annual meeting of The Popular Culture  Association in the South in 2010. All photos are the property of Jennifer Garlen. Neither this blog nor its author has any official connection to LEGO or The LEGO Company.