Originality and Creativity
We should pause here to distinguish between originality and creativity. True originality is rare, whether in art, science, or LEGO, because to
LEGO® and Philosophy: Constructing Reality Brick By Brick, First Edition. Edited by Roy T. Cook and Sondra Bacharach.
© 2017 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2017 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
be truly original means to have done something that no one has ever done before, and that no one could have anticipated.1 Most LEGO creations will not meet that condition, for with the exception of serious hobbyists who undertake massive builds, most players who make original creations are making creations that are commonplace. My son’s DUPLO pie is not original, but it is creative, in the sense that constructing it was a new idea to him, and it is in this sense that we can ask whether playing with LEGO truly contributes to creativity.
On the one hand, LEGO allegedly encourages creativity by inviting us to build whatever we can imagine; on the other hand, actual LEGO play often involves following someone else’s instructions or building meticulous scale models of real-world objects. Many LEGO enthusiasts, especially adult LEGO enthusiasts, enjoy building sets, and then displaying them. In such cases, the point is not to use the bricks in new ways; the point is to carefully follow the instructions so that every piece winds up in its proper place. Following the instructions might be challenging, but it is hardly creative to follow an exacting plan laid out by someone else.
Perhaps being creative with LEGO just means setting aside the instructions and striking off solo to build one’s own creations. The system of play developed by the LEGO Group is commonly hailed as having the potential to contribute mightily to a child’s creative development because even though many bricks are sold as sets, all of the bricks interlock, so they can be reused over and over. Moreover, the high quality of the ABS thermoplastic used in LEGO bricks ensures that the bricks can survive generations of use; my son’s pie was made of DUPLOs that used to belong to his father. LEGO Batman® snaps into place happily alongside the original LEGO astronauts, and he may even borrow their space helmets; the only limits on Batman’s adventures lie in the imagination of the child.
Yet even original LEGO creations must follow the constraints that result from the physical forms of the bricks. We might think of creativity as requiring significant artistic freedom to create whatever we want, and while the LEGO bricks facilitate stacking, the interlocking studs-and-bricks constrain what is possible. Working with LEGO requires working with edges and corners; it is no surprise that many large-scale creations are pieces that are well-suited to being built out of rigid plastic: cars, boats, buildings, and so forth.
Moreover, LEGO purists insist that only products produced by the LEGO Group should be used in an authentically original LEGO creation. Painting or remolding or placing stickers on the bricks counts against the spirit of LEGO creation.2 Though a fan could exercise creativity while remolding LEGO, according to this line of thought, she would not be building with LEGO creatively. Rather, doing so would be creatively using LEGO as raw materials, as one might repurpose any other piece of plastic. As a result, while we often hear that playing with LEGO encourages creativity, the implicit rules of fan culture, as well as the material constraints imposed by the bricks themselves, limit significantly what may be created.
Herein lies the paradox of creativity: how can the freedom required for true creativity be compatible with a toy that comes with incredibly detailed instructions for creating specific objects, let alone with a fan culture that constrains what counts as a legitimately creative use of LEGO? Confronted with this paradox, I am cynically tempted to assume that I am nothing more than a dupe of marketing. “Creativity” perhaps means nothing more than “buy this toy, o conscientious parent; you will certainly get a lot of use out of it, and trust us, you will have more fun if you buy lots and lots of bricks.”