How LEGO Made a Problem Worse by ‘Gamifying’ it

Alex Walker
Alex Walker

Dong carving from ancient Pompeii

Bathroom walls, bus shelters, and book margins. Give people a pen and a small percentage of them will always draw a ‘dong’.

Why? We don’t know, but archaeological evidence from the Greek islands to Pompeii to Egypt shows us it’s been happening for thousands of years across cultures. While the creation tools might have become more sophisticated, it seems the dong remains the same.

Former LEGO Universe designer Megan Fox recently gave us an interesting insight into how the problem impacts an online product.

LEGO Universe was LEGO’s attempt to compete in the ludicrously successful virtual building block game space spawned by Minecraft.

However, when these ‘anatomical sculptures’ began to appear, LEGO snapped into action, believing their position of trust with parents to be under threat. Hundreds of hours of coding went into designing software that secretly analyzed every new LEGO construction from multiple angles, and flagged questionable artwork for a team of real human moderators to assess.

Unfortunately for Lego, anatomically obsessed artists took this as a fun challenge, and set about devising new and ingenious designs that could only be ‘appreciated’ from particular angles.

Without meaning to, LEGO had ‘gamified’ a process they were trying to stop.

Graffiti art: Sweep it away

“It was all automated, but the human moderators were IIRC the single biggest cost center for LEGO Universe’s operational costs. Or close to.”

Megan Fox (@glassbottommeg) May 30, 2015

Eventually LEGO concluded that it was impossible to guarantee the content contained within their game space, and shut the application down – a sad result.

So despite their legendary reputation for building block play, LEGO effectively handed the ‘virtual block building’ space to Minecraft.

Doesn’t Minecraft have the same issue?

They certainly do. A five-second Google image search will confirm that.

But Minecraft seem to have taken more of a ‘town council’ approach to the problem. While they don’t pretend they can guarantee every inch of their ‘city’ is clear of graffiti every second of the day, they respond to problems as soon as they’re aware of them.

This seems to have been the right call. Minecraft is still as popular with kids, adults and even schools as it ever was, and there’s no obvious evidence of reputation damage.

It’s a tough call but Mojang seem to have got the balance right.

Originally published in the SitePoint Design Newsletter.