Achintya Prasad has returned from his exploration of the irradiated wasteland with spare parts for the generator, a few dozen rounds of ammunition and another article for your perusal. Without any further ado, take it away Mr. Prasad!
Hey everyone, and welcome to another article in the new series, Great Debates! Today, I’m going to examine the large social phenomenon, one of the largest examples of a non-organic population created by humanity, the popular minifigure. Though introduced in 1978, the humble plastic figure has recently become far more than a playable accessory. Entire product lines, such as the LEGO collectible series, steadily crank out new minifigures, forgoing the traditional LEGO playbook of small to large sets, containing components.
Now, before I go any further, I have to say that even your studious guide (yours truly) to this topic has fallen victim to the wave of LEGO minifigures. I’m not bashing people that buy the, for lack of a better term, action figure kits, that is the Minifigure series. But I think we all agree that buying these kits are not the same as buying a LEGO set, as there aren’t nearly as many components. The subject of these packs is the minifigure itself, not any particular object. Anyways, I once bought handful of LEGO British Royal Guards from Bricklink, at an astronomical price, only to have the figures be stashed away for years in a dresser. I’m sure they’ll eventually have some value as a collector’s set, but nonetheless, I probably could have spent the money on something far more useful. That said, I still feel that maybe, just maybe, they’ll be useful to me…
Truth is, I never had a problem with minifigures, but a recent trip to the LEGO store made me reconsider the actual role of the minifigure, and what it means for the hobby as a whole. I feel that this whole trend is most infamous for, frankly, ruining many of LEGO’s attempts at UCS style kits. A prime example of what I’m talking about is found on the Super Star Destroyer kits LEGO released a few years. The entire cityscape of greeble in the middle of the creation was designed to be shallow, to allow some classic scenes from the movies to be included in the kit. Of course, the 15-mile-long SSD is nowhere near to scale with the minifigure. This matters as, by definition, the UCS style kits are Ultimate Collector’s Items, not a kid’s play thing. The model is designed for large scale and accuracy to the movie, so why would include minifigures? They do little to enhance the actual purpose of these kits, and instead require unnecessary provisions inside a technically complex model. But perhaps that doesn’t quite bother you, as after all, the actual lines of the mammoth SSD aren’t quite ruined by the inclusion. Well, constant reader, let me direct your attention to one of the most controversial, infamous, and long-lived Star Wars model released: the minifigure Death Star.
The Death Star was minifigures galore, 23 to be precise. The only thing the creation actually shared with the movie WMD is, well, the rough geometric shape (and even that is after squinting at a picture of the model after its been faxed through 12 different time zones and 8 Xerox copiers). As a microscale builder fixated on details, scaling and proportion (most of my creations are actually built using calculated dimensions, scale, and real-life examples, I’m that pedantic) this set is the spawn of Satan. At an exorbitant price of over $300, the set is a showcase, once again, of the famous scenes from the movies, and includes a massive amount of minifigures to complement the scenes. But accuracy? Who cares. Precision? Save that for the hobby modelists (see what I did there?!) If I’m going to be honest, I hate the Death Star set, and I really can’t fathom why LEGO is still trying to pawn the kit off to FOLs, at such a huge cost, with little in the way of exterior detailing.
Now, you may think, alright, so some sets are compromised by the playability “necessity” of the minifigure. You may also argue that there are plenty of kits that either utilize the minifigure very usefully (see the modular building line ups) or kits that are impressively built without considering minifigures (such as my all time favorite set, the Boeing 787, or my second favorite kit, the new Ideas Saturn V rocket).
To all that, I answer, rubbish. In similar manner to James May’s hatred of the Nurburgring effect on car comfort, quality, and practicality, I think the minifigure is purveying an upheaval that is changing the purpose of LEGO itself.
I’ve mentioned this before in the article, and if you’ve looked through my photo stream, you’d know that I’m a primarily microscale military builder. And, in reality, the LEGO minifigure has done much for this side of the community. It’s common practice to use minifigure screwdrivers as gun barrels or binoculars as, well, whatever you want them to represent. In fact, I would argue that the whole idea of Nice Parts Usage (NPU) would not exist without the help of the minifigure. But see, the even in military building, including space and detail work for minifigures is a hassle that rarely results in a scale model (after all, minifigures are notorious for their “cute” inaccuracies of the human body) being accurate to the source material. And that really begs the question, what is the point of a LEGO Model (deep, I know). In the past, we discussed accuracy, but really that’s only half the battle. See, the minifigure adds the LEGO profit baseline: playability. As LEGO enthusiasts, we have to ask ourselves, is that our end goal? If it is, job done. But something tells me that the community builds for far more. See, I think that the goal is functionality.
I should explain, playability does NOT equal functionality. When a model, say, our Death Star example, is designed, it is originally created around the playability idea. Functionality, on the other hand, is something uniquely different. Its retractable landing gear, or moving drawbridges. Its 5 speed technic gearboxes, or moving Mech legs. Playability harvests the fruits of functionality to leverage an experience that allows the enthusiast to tell a story or playout a scenario. Functionality, however, has more uses. Perhaps functionality is used to service a detailed water mill on an Old English town scene. That same functionality helped create the sub-genre of motorized tank building, that creates realistic tanks with rotating turrets, functioning suspension, and even working cannons. Functionality allows the artist to express a depth in a creation. It’s more than a static model, it’s a faithful recreation of the subject, right down to the object’s intended purpose. It may not be an easy designation to make, but this is one of the biggest difference that marks us experienced FOLs aside. We’re building to service that accuracy, within the confines of the LEGO brick, all the while including some of the interesting movements and purposes of the subject material. While we may play or swoosh around an aircraft we build, fundamentally, the playable feature is still given to the minifigure, as that is the intended purpose of the little plastic men. If you need further convincing, consider this for a moment, which series is functional, Technic or LEGO city? Which one is more play friendly, Star Wars battle pack sets, or a Creator large scale car (such as the Mini Cooper or Ferrari F40)?
Perhaps another notable comparison is between the minifigure and its distant cousin, Army Men. Sold literally by the bucket, these plastic privates have taken major roles in movies such as Toy Story, and have inspired millions of people. Army Men, for what their worth, are all play. While there are communities out there dedicated to introducing realism to these little lieutenants, these flash-ridden toys are really all play. It’s notable that its common place to receive some larger military equipment, such as jeeps and cannons, with these playsets, similar to models being included with LEGO minifigures. While army men are also related to Hobby Models, and are often roughly to scale with these sets, they aren’t intrinsically adding something extra to the hobby, while minifigs have some noted innovation in microscale parts. Despite this difference however, the primary purpose of both the minifigure and the army man is play. This is something that I feel is stressed by toy companies and the LEGO group alike.
See, during my LEGO store visit (where I carefully and admittedly embarrassingly engaged the tessellation game which is packing a Pick a Brick cup), I noticed a larger and larger selection of minifigure related products. From the Pick-your-minfig station to the growing number of “battle kits” from Star Wars, to the numerous examples of LEGO City sets, the place was overrun with the plastic figure. Sure, I understand that selling playability is a lot easier than selling the different enthusiast goals of functionality, but that whole concept is what LEGO was literally built on. Ole Kirk Christian’s automatic binding bricks were an innovation in functionality in their own right (I mean think about it, you can put two plates together and literally it takes the force of a supernova, brick separator, or a good pair of teeth quite a bit of grief to pull apart FACT). While minifigures may be making innovation in the ever present NPU community, and the social justice community (women scientist series), I don’t think building a kit around the minifigure is quite the vision of the original company, or indeed, the trend of the bleeding edge of most LEGO community.
Now, for sure, the minifigure is an important part of the community. But when we start the cringe inducing shortcuts in the City line of sets, or create UCS kits just to include minifigures, we’re shortchanging ourselves from truly enjoying LEGO to its full potential. If the whole goal of LEGO is to create something outside the confines of the singular brick, why must we also be chained to including the venerable minifigure? Let us know your thoughts in the comments down below.