During the past year I have re-acquainted myself with LEGO and gotten to know the AFOL hobby. I have learned plenty of LEGO lessons too, pondered the dark ages and made some observations about past LEGO generations. It has been an interesting mental and physical journey to say the least. One thing that causes frequent pondering is the source of motivation as well as the direction to take when playing with toys as an adult. As a kid, it all comes naturally and is an universally agreed-upon part of growing up. The motivation is inherent and the direction is irrelevant.

Not so, as an adult – I find.

An adult mindset is not well suited for seemingly aimless play – there are exceptions of course, but I’m speaking of myself and what I guess is the majority. We often lack the imagination as well as the patience to play without a coherent set of rules and/or goals. This is probably the reason toys aimed at older kids often come in the form of games with rules and competition, as pre-teens and teens are growing out of their imaginative childhoods and towards boring adulthood. Small children let their minds wonder free and come up with the darnest things. Instead, an adult life is often filled with projects, deadlines, targets and – you know – reasons for doing things. Playing with toys, while natural and great for the former, has a hard time fitting in with the latter.

That is, of course, one reason why LEGO is a toy better suited for adults as well as children than, say, dolls. The building process of a LEGO set is a project even an adult mind can relate and commit to. The problem is especially what comes after that. What do you do with the set? Kids, obviously, start playing. I find my son often starts playing even before the set we are building is finished, something my project-oriented adult mind abhors. The deadline is looming! We must finish the project! No touching unfinished work! Of course, LEGO is a toy and the child is right and I am wrong – and as a parent I am happy to let the child take the detour and watch him play. I can even take part to some extent, as a parent. But beyond enjoying the time with the child, as an adult I find myself without personal motivation to play with LEGO – it just isn’t there anymore and I know I’m not the only one.

That doesn’t mean I lack motivation towards LEGO, though. But where does that motivation come from, how to maintain it and where can I realistically expect to take a LEGO hobby as an adult? The LEGO Architecture series provides one answer to it. Many of the LEGO Architecture sets are often sold at the famous locations they depict and people buy them to take home as souvenirs. Even an adult can enjoy the process of building the souvenir, reading (or even leaving on the coffee table) the accompanying booklet and then just putting the set on show in a bookcase somewhere – just like they might do with any travel memento. The motivation to buy and build comes from the location they have visited and afterwards they can display the model and remember their visit there. If you enjoy building things, this really makes LEGO a much better souvenir than some static scale-model or a keyring. The problem, here, of course is that this motivation is limited in scope and potential – once the place is visited and the set is done, that’s it.

Another motivation for adults to enjoy LEGO, and indeed the reason for the existence of this blog, is nostalgia. No matter your age, the formative years of childhood are probably embedded deeper into the fabric of you than any other period in your life. Many adults enjoy reliving, to an extent, their childhood experiences. The problem with nostalgia though, in my experience at least, is that it is not an endless supply of motivation. One simple issue is that by definition there is only a limited amount of things to relive from especially your own past. While you can discover some historical things you haven’t experienced yet, mostly there isn’t new stuff magically appearing in the past. The only way to experience an endless supply of new things is to look forward, not back. This leads us to the second issue, which is the longevity of nostalgia. Or lack thereof. Nostalgia usually comes in bouts and more often than not disappears after a while – it comes with an expiration date, at least for the short-term. Nostalgia alone probably won’t keep you interested for an extended period of time.

Third motivation for adults to build LEGO is what I’d call the artists. They come in many shapes and forms, some use LEGO to film stop-motion videos, others hoard massive amounts of bricks and create magnificent sculptures of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (aka the familiar plastic most LEGO is made of) and then share them online or display at LUG (LEGO User Group) meetings. Some have been even known to build massive ball contraptions. The list goes on. Then there are the collectors. Collectors may be affected by some of the other motivations as well, and may or may not be avid LEGO builders too, but basically their main motivation comes from the desire to collect and display whatever niche is their interest. For them, the prize is the collection. Collectors are patrons of arts, of sorts, and their LEGO set/MOC collection is their art collection. Finally, some people play games or role play with LEGO. And sure, some adults actually play with LEGO.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of motivations, but I think some of the main types are there. During the past year I have been thinking about my own motivation. Clearly I have been mostly driven by nostalgia and it has been a great motivator at times. There are moments when I can see that motivation fading a bit – and then suddenly being rekindled when I see some old brochure or building instructions lying around. It does make me wonder about the longevity of my motivation, though. I find myself seeking reasons why my new LEGO hobby exists and where is it going. This is not something a young child would do, but it probably isn’t unlike whatever I thought in late 1980s when my dark ages were fast approaching. It has helped quite a bit that I have set out clear projects for myself, and I am truly excited about them, but it still leaves open the question what do I do once they are completed. I mean, pragmatically my motivation has been to pass on some of my old LEGO to my son, and that is still the case, but is there something beyond that?

For those adults that have found a sustainable AFOL hobby, and not just a momentary rekindling of childhood memories, answering this question seems mandatory. I mean, it isn’t like hobbies need reasons to exist, but they do need motivation. The motivation doesn’t have to be rational, but it does have to be real. I can see that in the longer run, nostalgia can not be the only motivator, because at some point you either run out of nostalgic things or grow tired of them. Well, that’s how I personally see it anyways. The hobby must have a forward-looking element as well. For me, playing with LEGO doesn’t seem to be the answer, nor am I big on gathering or displaying vast collections (although I do like taking and storing photographs). Yet, even with these doubts I can see myself constantly return – in the years past too, before I recognized the AFOL in me – to the plastic brick. And I know I enjoy building things, LEGO and otherwise. So, there is inherent motivation that I believe is driven by more than nostalgia, but it is still unclear how to best pursue it.

I have given thought to three solutions:

First is the question of facilities. During the past year I have found myself constantly limited by the lack of a proper building place for myself. It is less of an issue with my son, we just build where ever and he’s off to play – and he has his whole room for this kind of stuff anyway. But when I take some alone-time for the LEGO hobby, I need a place where I can be a little more organized about it all and it needs to be easy enough to get in and out of that mode. This is especially true when I intend to take some photographs, which I have found to be by far the most labor-intensive part of my AFOL hobby and can’t just be done anywhere, anytime due to lighting and other issues. If the setup and arrangements are too complicated, as they are currently, I may not bother and the hobby languishes even if I’d like otherwise. Whatever the hobby, it helps to have proper facilities for it – that way the hobby can complement the everyday, not disrupt it.

Second line of thinking is the artistry. Namely MOCcing. As I have argued above, building is a craft that doesn’t question age. Building MOCs, that is self-designed and made LEGO designs, seems like a great way for a tinkering adult to enjoy the LEGO hobby. For the more technically oriented it can get even better by adding some robotics or automation to it, so you create things that do stuff. This would seem far more interesting from a general adult perspective than, say, building new store-bought LEGO sets and creating a 2013 LEGO City out of them. MOCcing is a form of self-expression, perfectly suitable for adults. And while you’re at it, you can even enjoy building the occasional set from TLG. I know many cases of so called “parts buyers” who buy LEGO sets for MOC parts, yet still often build the set once just to see what it is like before taking it down for parts.

Third, there is the communality of it. MOCcing also means that you are making something that is easily shared on the numerous LEGO communities online and offline, communication and camaraderie that comes naturally to many grown-ups. In this latter sense, those contacts can become even more important than the LEGO building itself. Some AFOLs probably spend more time talking about LEGO than building LEGO – heck, that probably holds true for me as well. This, of course, is perfectly fine. It’s a hobby, do whatever rocks your boat. Indeed, so far one of the best parts of the AFOL hobby, for me, has been the online interactions with other adult LEGO enthusiasts.

So, why do adults build LEGO? I hope I listed some motivations above, but of course, these are merely my subjective thoughts as they are accumulating over this journey. Your mileage may vary, so I’d love to hear your comments. Personally, I’m sticking to my plan of going forward – like a boring adult would – project by project. I think I’ll be much wiser once I have completed my quests for Lion Knights’ castle and Inter-City train. Once finished, I will take a good look at what I’ve learned and what I want to do next!