Even in the age of smartphones, good old Lego has been thriving. The bricks have sold movies and video games, and the movies and video games have sold more bricks. The beloved Danish toy company made its first billion dollars in revenue in 2006, and, by 2016, it had already managed to increase yearly revenue to $5 billion. Lego seemed to have the whole digital age figured out. Fast Company dubbed the company “the Apple of toys” in 2015.
And then in 2017, Lego announced an 8% drop in revenue–its first dip in 13 years–and fired 1,400 people. The new CEO said there was “no quick fix,” and the company wouldn’t be returning to an era of growth anytime soon.
In this uncertain time for Lego, the company is announcing its first foray into augmented reality with a new line called Lego Hidden Side.
A year and a half in the making, Lego Hidden Side combines a physical brick set with a smartphone app. The brick sets–starting at $20–work fine on their own. Depicting scenes across a small, haunted town, they let kids build models like a graveyard, schoolhouse, or bus. Each set is crafted to transform with a “hidden side.” In the case of the schoolhouse, flipping a few pieces on the model reveals spooky eyes and claws.
You can certainly play with Hidden Side kits all on their own, but that’s not Lego’s plan. You’re also urged to download an accompanying free app for iPhone or Android. Aiming your phone at a built model, and the camera detects it through shape recognition. The kit is visually augmented on screen, much like a Snapchat filter, with a digital backdrop and animations.
“We know kids are playing more and more digitally, says Murray Andrews, the senior lead on Lego Hidden Side. “What’s key for us is how can we take the core Lego epic and build on that, and enhance it.”
Here is where things go south–at least from what I can see through the Skype demo I’m watching as Andrews plays for me. The app is a ghost hunting game. The idea is that you play with the model with one hand while you hold the phone and hunt ghosts on screen with the other. It’s literally designed for children to have one hand in the physical world, and one in the digital. This meant that Lego’s model designers actually had to tweak their set designs to work one-handed.
The app embodies many of the lousy clichés of bad mobile games–the sort of dopamine-fueled, meaningless play that makes many parents fear screens in the first place. Poking and prodding at the model, you sometimes discover ghosts. The long-term goal is to trap 100 different ghosts, aiming a reticle to pew-pew them into a trap. Along the way, you find skeleton keys, and collect cash to upgrade your own ghost equipment.
“Currency is used to upgrade equipment and fight tougher ghosts,” Andrews explains. Meanwhile, a timer runs at the bottom to give it all a sense of urgency.
Watching this scene play out on my screen is a profoundly sad experience. I see every trope of mindless, addictive game design, yet very little of the creative play that makes Lego so fun. Yes, there are some clever interactions between the physical model and the screen–it’s neat that you can place a minifig on a particular part of the set and the screen gets it, perhaps exorcising the ghost trapped inside. But neat AR stuff is a dime a dozen. And a brand like Lego is a rarity.
Of course, Lego isn’t creating Hidden Side in a vacuum. The hardware and software are being carefully developed and shared with 1,400 families across three countries who are offering feedback as Lego readies the product for release in late summer 2019. The idea seems like it’s being so focus-tested inside Lego that it has to be a hit.
And maybe it will be. But I’d argue that the real magic of Lego occurs in that gap between the physical product and your mind–a gap where the imagination lives, transforming plastic minifigs into heroes and stackable bricks into spectacles. With Hidden Side, as carefully as it’s been designed, Lego has filled that imaginative gap with a screen. And whereas once the possibilities of a Lego set were endless, now the narrative is sheer consumerism–collect all this crap with the goal of collecting more.
I know I sound curmudgeonly, but many psychologists stress the value of play–and open-ended free play–in childhood development. Toys like Lego, train sets, and dolls are key components to the evolution of one’s mind and personality for all sorts of reasons, ranging from how they help develop fine motor skills to how they teach us to collaborate and communicate with others.
Why doesn’t this game Lego has created feel like play? I can’t help but come back to this five-part definition of “play” published by Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College.
1. Play is self-chosen and self-directed.
2. Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends.
3. Play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players.
4. Play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life.
5. Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.
I’m not sure that Lego Hidden Side, played through a screen, meets a single one of these criteria–let alone all five.