Lego Hacking: What’s Wrong With The World

Federation starship built from Star Wars Legos

Image by Lego Hacker. Click to visit site.

In my news reader feed this weekend was an article on a kid who builds Star Trek vehicles from Star Wars Lego sets, from which the following excerpts are taken:

One twelve-year-old boy, known online as “Legohacker” has figured out the trick of turning official Star Wars Lego sets into Star Trek ships.

Some four-year-olds will create art with Play-Doh or use crayons to create artistic masterpieces, but Legohacker was a bit different than his age-contemporaries, according to his father, Jon Ippolito. “When I had kids I was eager to see what kind of creativity they would spill on a page full of crayon drawings or a lump of Play Dough or, in this case, a bunch of Legos,” he said. “I was pretty astonished to see how sophisticated the kind of thinking outside the box they did was.”

The son, who is now twelve, is still a fan of Legos. Legohacker uses the official sets, turning them into something else using only the pieces that were included in the box (hacking the set). His latest Lego hacking includes turning Star Wars sets into Star Trek ships.

There’s a term for building something with Legos other than the picture shown on the front of the box? “Hacking the set”?

See, when I was that age, the term we used for using official Lego sets to build your own custom creations was “playing with Legos.” Heck, when I was four, they didn’t even have official designs for you to build something other than. You bought a box, it had a bunch of bricks. You built whatever you wanted from it.

It’s annoyed me for years that Lego sets have become more and more specialized in their pieces, which it seemed to me was reaching the point that they essentially became model kits. I was thinking about it from a perspective of the specialization limiting options, though. It never occurred to me that people would be treating the set instructions so religiously that building something else would be considered “hacking.”

We live in a world that is become gradually more and more open-source, and yet we raise children with increasingly closed entertainment. As children’s entertainment gets “better,” it leaves less and less room for imagination.

Children are born thinking outside of the box.

It wouldn’t be that exciting to see them continue to do so at four or at 12 if we didn’t feel the need to construct some elaborate boxes to put them in in the first place.

7 Responses

  1. Nice rant. True, so true.

    (I’m totally hacking this comment box!)

  2. Agreed. I haven’t looked at the instructions for a recent set, but I remember the sets I grew up with having pictures of alternate constructions you could make with the pieces in that set. If you wanted to build them, you had to do it on your own. Rarely did I build exactly what the pictures showed, but it was a good kick-starter for various and sundry lego creations.

    It does seem a little ridiculous to term this “hacking”, and to elevate it beyond anything but a neat idea; but kudos to the kid for creating an interesting project.

    Also, as a degreed, super-official business type person, I’d like to declare the phrase “Thinking outside of the box” as officially In The Box. Also, I’d like to declare The Box to be inside of itself, creating some sort of quantum jargon singularity.

    …I think I just stumbled upon Jasper Fforde’s next book idea.

  3. You know what’s funny is that the well-praised kid is working conceptually with two spheres of ideas: the Star Trek or the Star Wars worlds. I haven’t any trouble with the spheres of ideas or the creativity of the kid to build his own chosen stuff out the boxed set. But I suspect that the kid isn’t “thinking outside of the box” at all. He just uses technical material and techniques that recreate stuff in worlds already made for him. (I suspect his adventures using these lego-land toys are probably the true out-of-the-box imaginative experiences). One wonders if his well-meaning father has projected his own views vicariously upon the child. 🙂
    And, fwiw, what’s wrong with thinking Inside the box anyway?

  4. Jon — I second your Box declarations.

    Paul — Whoa. Good points. Hadn’t thought about the fact that all his free-thinking is really doing is just replicating someone else’s creativity. That sad thing is, society actually encourages that. Use Legos to build something entirely from your own imagination, no one cares. Use Legos to build Star Trek ships out of Star Wars ships, and you’re in Wired. We prefer our creativity to be comfortably derivative.

  5. David and Paul — As the “well meaning father” whose kid’s constructions ended up in Wired, I can confirm that my son and daughter wouldn’t describe what they’re doing as hacking.

    I think that’s more of a perspective brought by geezers like me who remember when the most specialized brick was a transparent block, or one with a wheel in it. Now it seems almost every Lego kit has a movie tie-in, and the pieces can be so specialized that it’s a wonder they can be re-purposed at all. (I certainly can’t think of another use for the armored chaps that ship with the “Commander Cody” Star Wars character.) In this world of copyrights and exclusive commercial licenses, your comment about children’s entertainment getting more closed as the world becomes more open source is spot-on.

    That said, the original reason I created the blog was to document my kid’s creations that don’t represent anything except their own imaginative constructs. And in the earliest pages you’ll find things that are built not by imitating some artifact from the movies or TV but by fitting bricks together in “inappropriate” ways–ways you wouldn’t expect *anyone* to fit them together. To me that’s closer to hacking Legos, if not commercial culture.

  6. Jon — Thanks for your comment! I hope none of what I wrote came across as critical of you or your son. Heck, personally, anybody that’s set their kids up with Star Wars, Star Trek and Legos as they were growing up is my hero.

    In fact, really, my point was the opposite — what you’re doing, in terms of your kids creativity and your encouragement of it, is great. It’s what people should be doing, and my complaint is that more people aren’t. It’s sad that we live in a culture where that sort of thing is considered exceptional.

    And, for the record, the projects on the blog are rather cool. 🙂

  7. At all times maintain it up!

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