Lego Obsession Builds and Builds in Adulthood

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, September 7, 2008

Until recently, Will Chapman worked as a Web software developer near his home in Redmond, Wash. But he quit his job a couple of months ago to become a small-arms dealer.

As in very small arms. His most popular item is a tiny M4 carbine, priced at $1, that you could lose in your pocket. Made out of plastic, the toy weapon snaps neatly into the hand of a Lego man. Like all the other skillfully crafted products in his company's catalogue, you'd never know the piece didn't come from a Lego kit.

Chapman, like a few thousand other Lego fans who attended the BrickFair convention at a Tysons Corner hotel last weekend, has a serious passion for the brick. He got into the toy-weapon business by accident, mostly, when his 9-year-old craved a World War II-themed Lego set. Lego doesn't make that kind of set, so Chapman decided to try making his own, with the aid of some software design tools and a few experiments in injection molding.

Adult fans of Lego, who refer to one another as AFOLs, are kind of intense like that.

This is a good time for Lego and its aficionados, regardless of their age. The Danish toymaker's sales rose 20 percent during the first half of this year compared with the first half of 2007. The company credited the ongoing success of its "Star Wars" products and a popular new line of "Indiana Jones"-themed kits for the growth.

Until recently, it had looked like the venerable Lego might turn out to be a has-been in the era of video games and Webkinz; the company came close to bankruptcy a few years ago after flops such as a 2002 children's sci-fi TV show that the company had hoped would sell a new line of action figures. In 2003, the company lost $238 million. After a period of cost cutting, Lego returned to profitability in 2005.

At the moment, Lego appears to be ascendant. The company has lent its brand to a popular new line of video games, in which players reenact adventures from the "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" movies in a playful Lego environment. Shoot a bad guy, for example, and he falls apart into pile of bricks. A "Batman" version of the video game is scheduled for release this month.

One of the company's next major projects is a virtual online world in which players will pay a monthly subscription to control Lego-figure avatars in a 3-D environment where they'll be able to virtually interact with other Lego fans and build virtual Lego models. Lego Universe, as the game is called, is scheduled for release next year.

Though not a sponsor of the fan-organized BrickFair, Lego had a booth there to display some of its coming kits, such as a "Star Wars" Death Star model, which ships later this month at a price of, gulp, $400.

But if the point of playing with Legos is that you can create anything you want, the point of BrickFair was for fans to show off the latest models they'd dreamed up and built themselves. For AFOLs, in other words, it's all about the MOCs -- the community's shorthand term for "my own creation."

So the main attractions at BrickFair were creations like the giant homemade Lego tower and the Lego crane that reached high over the heads of the crowd on the show floor. One table was filled with stunningly accurate recreations of military vehicles from around the world, built by local fan Magnus Lauglo. And by all means, if you've never seen Lauglo's version of the Austrian Mechanized Military Hawk light multipurpose helicopter, I can tell you that you've truly never seen a proper Lego Habicht Leichter Mehrzweckhubschrauber.

Galen Fairbanks, 37, grew up playing with Lego and got into them again when Lego debuted its "Star Wars" models, in 1999. In a booth, he displayed his re-creations of scenes from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and from the recent "Star Wars" Lego video games.

"It didn't take my wife long to figure out I was buying them for myself as much as for the kids," said Fairbanks, who works in computer support at the National Institutes of Health. "I'm a much bigger fan now than when I was a kid."

In a room off the main floor Sunday morning, Philip Eudy was trying to get a string fixed so that a giant Rube Goldberg-type contraption he'd brought from his home in North Carolina would work again. Eudy is in the subset of Lego fans fascinated by the company's robotic line, called Mindstorms, and he came to show off his latest machine that uses all sorts of ingenious mechanical strategies for moving a plastic ball around a circuit involving tubes, strings and levers.

It's almost showtime, and the pressure is on to get that string fixed: The crowd of kids and grown-ups is stretched across the front of the hotel, and the doors are about to open. When the crowd comes in, "it's like a Metallica concert," he said.

Not every serious Lego fan attending the show was lugging a bin of bricks, however. Orion Pobursky, a 30-year-old Navy man who works as a submarine electrician, is a mover and shaker in the virtual Lego community. He's always loved the brick, but he travels a lot and can't really take his collection into the cramped space of a submarine, so he got involved by running a Lego fan site that offers special software for those who want to design Lego models on their computers.

"That way, I could play with Lego wherever I go," he said.

So what's with all the tech guys and their Lego obsession? "I think an appreciation for Lego pushes you towards that type of field," said Richard Schamus, one of the organizers of BrickFair, who works as a computer security consultant for the government.

No doubt some of the kids packed into the Sheraton Premiere will grow up to be engineers, electricians and techies, too. Eric Desman, a dad from Clifton attending the show with his son, said 9-year-old Noah has recently expressed an interest in growing up to be an engineer -- so that he can play with Lego bricks forever.

Not every kid is taking such a straightforward career-planning approach, though. After tagging along with me at the show, my 7-year-old stepson now says he wants to start a rock band so he can get rich and buy every Lego kit in the world.

I hope it works out for him, as I probably can't afford to buy him that Death Star set this year.

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