LEGO Versatility and Wheelchairs

I’m on a night schedule right now, and didn’t wake up until the evening. When I did so, I started going through the inevitable barrage of emails, both direct and social media-related, that happens when I neglect my computer for few daylight hours. Last night, I noticed a small yet loud theme: the number of people who wanted to make certain that I knew Lego was producing a wheelchair piece.

Lego wheelchair

If you search for “Lego wheelchair” right now, you’ll find a lot of people celebrating the increase in “diversity” that this brings, as well as a few who can never be satisfied who think this is too little, too late. One of the people who really wanted me to know about this also wanted my opinion on the topic, and not just the piece.

I can’t imagine why anyone would think I’d be interested in either topic.

Wheelchair and BrickFair

That was sarcasm, by the way. Of course a Lego fanboy in a wheelchair would be interested in this news!

Win

Of course, Lego enthusiasts have been building them for a long time now.

Lego wheelchair MOC

lego_wheelchair_008

Lego wheelchair sports

Does that mean it’s not a big deal for The Lego Group to be producing a wheelchair piece that can be used right out of the box, without looking for instructions on how to build things like the stuff pictured above? Of course not! It’s pretty awesome.

But as for how some people are taking it . . . eh. No, this is not “overdue.” That’s the word used in a Gizmodo piece, for example (along with words like “heteronormative” and ragging on the set for — gasp! — including a mother holding a baby bottle), but  it’s Gizmodo; they’re not happy unless they can either tell everyone about how great they are or how stupid everyone else is.

Anger

The thing a lot of people fail to understand is that the Lego brand is built on assembling things, not having lots of large pieces that can’t be recombined in more than a few ways (I’m looking at you, Mega Bloks). Part of that is to increase creative options, which is the largest part of why Lego has become the top toy manufacturer in the world. You know that when you buy Lego, you’re not just buying one thing; you’re buying everything you can make with those parts, and everything you can make by combining those parts with the rest of your collection. That’s why a lot of brick artists will eschew pieces like this:

Lego BURP and LURP

. . . and instead use a lot of smaller pieces to create something like this:

DSCF1813

And in case you’re thinking that such things are okay for adults but hard for children, the above piece (titled “Sky Kingdom”) was constructed by a 14-year-old girl for the 2013 BrickFair event in Virginia. I was sitting right next to her with my much more humble display.

We’ll take it as a challenge. When Lego comes out with a new part type, we start discussion how we can use it in different ways. Sometimes, our non-standard techniques even become the norm, as happened with the use of transparent orange wedge tiles (“trans-orange cheese” for you AFOLs in the audience) to represent fire. That part used to be largely ignored until this scene showed up at the 2011 BrickFair:

DSCF1152

Or so I assume, anyway. That was my first public display, and there were a lot of very experienced artists who were surprised by how well that piece could be used to look like flames. Immediately after that event, the use of trans-orange cheese as fire became common, including in sets.

Lego 20214

So as near as I can tell, I contributed to the body of Lego techniques, taking a part that was rarely used and turning it into something very different. It’s a nice feeling; not as clever as many other techniques out there (like there’s this thing someone did last year with net parts that . . . well, long story, but it’s really cool, it floored us, and I’m totally going to be stealing it), but it’s nice to have made the world a little more interesting even when I didn’t mean to.

But there’s another reason than “fostering creativity” for the reliance on smaller, more versatile pieces. It’s a matter of economics. The typical Lego brick is engineered to a very high quality; it might seem expensive compared to something crappy like Best-Lock (seriously, never waste your money on that junk), but Lego bricks are cheaper per-part than they were when I was a kid, if you account for inflation. A $30 set today has more parts, both in quantity and in type, than a $20 set (the equivalent price; yes, we’ve had over 50% inflation in twenty years) back in the mid-90s. Lego makes up the difference through sheer volume and versatility. If one part can be used in many sets, it’s a better deal.

So now you understand that while I’m excited about an official wheelchair piece, I’m not jumping on the bandwagon of “IT’S ABOUT TIME OMG!!!1!!” I have no idea how long this part will be on the shelves, or how many sets it will be used in. I’m hoping this means we’ll get a Professor Xavier figure in the Marvel Superheroes line, and perhaps it will be used in a new hospital set. I don’t know how much versatility it will have, though; and a lot of people are going to know that too. I predict a supply-and-demand issue for that set, if only because of the people who want extras to let it appreciate in value.

Lego park set

To be honest, as glad as I am about that wheelchair, I’m actually more happy about the baby. Some niche manufacturers who develop parts (mostly minifig parts) to Lego’s standards of quality have tried developing baby figures, but they haven’t yet caught on. This one looks a lot more versatile, and I hope Lego will provide them in new colors as well.

As for the rest of the set? It’s not really innovative except for those two parts, but I hope the investors will leave some for the kids. We don’t know the price yet, but I’m betting it’ll be a great way for them to build up their minifigure collection and create some great Town/City scenes. In fact, I’ll probably get a few extras myself so that I can give them as gifts.

About Matthew Bowman

Matthew Bowman is a traditionally-minded Catholic convert and freelance science fiction and fantasy editor, which means that he's in high demand in a small population. Fortunately, he loves talking about stories. And Catholicism. And history. And philosophy. And lots of other stuff.
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