A common question amongst gamers is "what's the first video game you ever played?". I'm going to twist this question slightly, and ask "what's the first game you remember playing?". Well, for me, it's probably LEGO. But is LEGO even a game? Or just a toy I played with?
It's interesting to look at the differences between "play" and "game". Some languages don't even make the difference - English does, however, and it's a detail worth looking into to in order to answer the LEGO question.
What comes to mind for me is that play is a free, enjoyable, unrestricted activity. You can do something playfully, and have fun doing so - it doesn't have to be part of a game. The word "game", on the other hand, feels more formalised. A game has rules, it has parameters, and a context. You can play a game, which usually involves challenge to reach an objective.
Looking at a LEGO box, and therefore a completed set, one can imagine how the characters can be moved around, made to fight, inhabit imaginary worlds... In other words, how LEGO can be played. Playing and Gaming -
Reflections and Classifications (Kampmann Walther, 2016) observes that "Not only do we explore a world while playing. We are also driven by its potential meaning and the stories we can invent in that respect.". This seems to be an exact description of the LEGO player's activity: a creative undertaking based around the toy, using it as a prop to create stories and interact with it.
Talking about play, Freud (1953) points out that "as people grow up, then, they cease to play, and they seem to give up the yield of pleasure which they gained from playing", and we can make an almost direct parallel between this quote and LEGO. It's not often that you see a 50 year old picking up a LEGO pirate crew member, invent a story about a treasure raid, and spent twenty minutes enacting the scenes. Equally, even Freud-approved players may find the activity dull, and not want to use LEGO this way. Does this mean that LEGO has reached its full, and only, potential through play?
Maybe not, thanks to another crucial component to LEGO sets: the building. In this play instance, the player will pick-up the manual, follow the (sometimes challenging) steps, to reach a particular end state, i.e. the completion of the LEGO set. A game can be defined as "goal-directed activities in which inefficient means are intentionally (or rationally) chosen" (Suits, 1967). Indeed, one might say that there is no challenge in building a LEGO set - the instructions are set and you simply follow them. However, from a game-centric perspective, I would argue that the building is in fact the key challenge and a game, because it is the inefficient path. The easy path is a pre-built LEGO (and who wants that?), the harder path is the challenge of building it yourself, frustration, fun, personal touches, missing pieces and all.
My conclusion is that, through separate forms of gameplay, LEGO is both a playing activity, and a game. And like with any game, the fun is in the eye of the beholder!
Freud, S. (1953) The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth Press, p.149
Kampmann Walther, B. (2016). Game Studies - Playing and Gaming: Reflections and Classifications. Available at: http://www.gamestudies.org/0301/walther/#_edn4 (Accessed 1 November 2016)
Suits, B. (1967) 'What Is a Game?', Philosophy of Science, 34(2), pp.148-156. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/186102?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents (Accessed 1 November 2016)