The dangers of Lego

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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

EVERYONE loves Lego. At least, that was the case for my generation.

I believe it was one of those tiny boxes that cost a fortune with just a little fireman with a shiny black hat and a red fire truck with moving wheels that my mother bought by installment from SM Makati. But out of that tiny box opened a world of multiple universes for a young boy with an imagination.

Remove the hat, and lego man became an astronaut with his fire truck converted into a space shuttle. And strangely, he was always ready to adapt to my whims with his plastered smile and movable limbs. The world was literally at your fingertips to be transformed into your liking first, by creative imagination and then the subsequent rearrangement of the pieces.


I think Lego facilitated autonomy wherein a kid can get lost in his own world during playtime with nary any social interaction. It was that type of toy that one would rather play with alone, at least I did. The suspension of belief that what one assembled is a believable facsimile of Camp Big Falcon is dependent on a very personal idiosyncratic conviction after all.

But the joy provided by the 10 or so pieces of lego bricks also has its threshold. And not before long, I found other similar objects in the household that can be employed as modular playthings but not as expensive. My mother’s pink rollers became transport space stations with the removable bands as satellite arrays. On them would dock, space fighter jets made from colorful plastic clothespins.

But then the neighborhood kids would traipse on the street in front of our house inviting me to a game of "baril-barilan," with their more convincing wooden toy guns. I just have to join them for a more realistic social adventure mimicking Rambo or Leon Guerrero and their gun battles between communists and Americans or Huks against cruel landlords in the nearby construction site with my own Ipil-Ipil-made AK-47.

In these games, I learned the pecking order in neighborhood politics among the young. If you are the youngest, then you are assigned the sorry position of being "saling-pusa." If your family has a reputation of being weirdos in the neighborhood, then no matter what age you are, you will always be ostracized. The game would often degenerate into a bullying session with those at the bottom of the pecking order becoming the target of pranks and jokes.

Cruel as all these may seem, but they are important rites of passage in the socialization process of the young. The social lesson here is that one waits for its turn to occupy the senior rungs of neighborhood politics among children. When the older ones progressed to girlfriends and experimental drinking, then it was the time for the younger ones to assume the dominant role among the younger set.

It was a fact of life for our generation and we survived with both physical and emotional scars that ultimately taught us lessons in the social costs of integration into young society. We learned social cruelty early on through these children’s games and we were made stronger for it.

I wonder if children nowadays have the benefit of these harsh but ultimately socially useful rites of passage. They may not be as enamored to Lego and the autonomous playtime it allowed, but their videogames similarly provide them with their private cocoon while growing up. Instead of social interaction, they have a malleable world that they manipulate through their controllers. All they have to do is learn the rules of a particular video game and earn virtual rewards through their acquiescence.

I think Douglas Coupland, the novelist, was onto something when he said that Lego is satan’s playtoy. In his work microserfs (1996), he brought attention to how the Danish modular toy probably brainwashed an entire generation of youth into thinking that the world was as sterile and pliable as the popular colorful bricks. According to him, “Lego promotes an overly mechanical worldview which once engendered is… impossible to surrender.”

Lego I believe was the forerunner of the pixelized digital gaming world many children now inhabit. What are lego bricks but physical pixels come to think of it? While they both boost imagination and creativity, they also create a handicap by engendering anti-social worldviews and practices among the young. When the virtual world and the real world collide, many young ones find themselves ill-equipped to handle the complexities that come with fluid and at times cruel human encounters.

I think about these things to make sense of the recent rampage of a dejected 22-year-old in California who stabbed and shot six people before turning the gun to himself.


(Arnold P. Alamon is an Assistant Professor IV, Sociology Department, Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology.)

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on May 27, 2014.


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