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You know what’s funny? I’ve been MOCing seriously for about four years and writing for almost two, and yet I’ve never actually written about MOCing as a pastime. I thought now would be as good a time as any.
Cast your mind back to early 2001. I was five years old, and I was sitting in my friend’s corridor admiring a green warrior-like toy of his. The toy was part of Lego’s newly-released line called Bionicle. He had a cog on his back that connected to his right arm, meaning that the axe could be made to swing up and down by turning the cog. I was fascinated: the cogs interacted so smoothly, so easily, so simply but so beautifully, to achieve their desired effect and nothing more, all packed into a clean plastic mechanism. A few months later I received Toa Kopaka for my sixth birthday from that same friend; looking back, I realise how incredibly fitting it was that Bionicle was released just when I was entering the age range printed on the canister, as if we were both beginning our little journey together, hand-in-hand.
I’m quite grateful that I had no concept of money back then, otherwise I wouldn’t have gotten my parents to buy me so many sets. Each one came with its own merits, its own charm, something to make it different; one idea that particularly appealed to me was that of combiner models, that made even the cloned sets have some aspect of uniqueness. I found it amazing that three already-great designs could be rearranged into something even more impressive. That was the first suggestion that the Lego sets were by no means set in stone, that each arrangement could be warped into something entirely different.
I’m not quite sure when I started customising the sets myself. I remember recolouring a Bohrok combiner that I particularly liked in 2003. Perhaps when I was about 10 or so I began playing around a little more, making colourful things like this; of course, I’d label them as terrible now, but they meant so much to me at the time. You have to start somewhere, right?
It became a tradition that I would receive one large set every Christmas and for each birthday, plus a spattering of sets in between. As my piece collection grew, though, the number of my friends who remained interested fell. By the time I entered secondary school, there was nobody with whom I could talk about the sets or exchange parts as I had been doing so previously, but this didn’t bother me much as I wasn’t that serious about it. There was one History lesson in Year 7 in which we learned about a type of catapult called a trebuchet; after seeing how the mechanism worked, I became intent on building one myself, which I did. I actually brought the model into school because I was so proud of myself. Besides that, though, Bionicle and school were entirely separate entities. It’s not like Lego was seen as a bad pastime back then – rather, it simply never came up in conversation, and that was fine by me.
I joined deviantArt in 2008, and uploaded my first Bionicle deviation later that year. What encouraged me to post my designs online was that I’d happened to stumble across Archinto’s gallery, which completely blew me away. I remember browsing through the photos in utter disbelief. I had no idea that such masterpieces could be made from such simple materials, on such a large scale, with such artistic precision. What was stopping me from building like them?
Not only that, but it made me realise that there existed a Bionicle community online. There were people on the Internet just like me, who enjoyed Lego as a pastime but had no-one else who reflected their interest. They had invented new terminology for me to learn, like names for every individual piece and how MOC stood for My Own Creation. Through deviantArt’s comment system we could share our thoughts on each other’s work, offer critique and give suggestions, mutually encourage each other to improve. I never mentioned anything about my Bionicle hobby at school anymore, as people simply didn’t care. The few times that the subject did come up, it was a source of mockery (from one of my friends, disappointingly), but I didn’t care; I had online friends now, who understood me. Were it not for deviantArt, I am certain that I would not be MOCing today.
As the years went on (and as I became more responsible for paying), I began being more selective of which sets to obtain. I looked up reviews and pored over the piece lists, when before I judged each one purely on first impressions. (I’d bought none of the Toa Inika, simply because they scared me. I regret this.) At one point I made an Excel document to keep a tally of how many sets I had, plus an estimate of their value at the time of purchase; as of December 2013, I have collected over 150 Bionicle or Hero Factory sets and spent about £1300. That’s over £100 a year – a substantial investment, but one that I do not regret at all.
In general, I began taking my Bionicle hobby more seriously. I formed opinions about how MOCing should be done, about the use of colour and lighting, about the use of consistent themes within a structure. I became admins for a couple of deviantArt groups in which people could offer their work up for scrutiny, and we would respond with helpful advice. I developed my own ‘signature’ style centred on the use of obscure pieces in unusual and alternative ways, like a helmet being used as an elephant’s trunk. A positive feedback loop formed: the more I built, the more feedback I received, which only pushed the process even further.
I think the nature of Lego building was central to my fascination about it. MOCing is, at its heart, nothing more than glorified rearrangement. You are presented with numerous pieces of various shapes and sizes with connection points in particular places; your challenge is to use them to make something presentable. I quickly learned that the sets that Lego produced were not a lesson in ‘How To Build With Lego’. Rather, they were easy-to-understand skeletons that you could use as a base to get you going, but offered little opportunity for customisation. The key step was the ability to break away from this framework entirely, to make something entirely custom, and to create something that you could call your own.
I’ll admit that the sense of pride in a creation was pretty crucial to my fondness in the hobby: after constructing a model I would display it on my shelf in admiration, knowing that I had put my time and effort into every aspect of its design. Anyone with the correct pieces could make one, but the fact remains that they didn’t. Compare this to, say, traditional paintings – it’s easy to look at a piece of professional artwork and immediately write it off as something which is beyond your capabilities, as it requires a degree of precision and skill that you simply don’t have. Lego, on the other hand, is so much more relatable: acquiring the pieces is merely a matter of money, and the actual construction is usually straightforward. The only thing stopping you from making something amazing is your ability to visualise, the extent of your imagination, your creativity.
It’s this aspect of creativity that appeals to me most. This particular combination of pieces exists on my shelf and mine alone; unlike the electronic pastimes of my friends, what I have produced is truly unique, and I have something tangible to be proud of rather than, say, a high kill streak or knowledge of a fictional TV series. In some ways, I think this is why I am reluctant to make instructions for my MOCs, as a second copy somehow diminishes from its value for me. It’s also the reason for why art theft is a particular fear of mine; I’ve caught people doing it before (and you could argue that I should be flattered that they do so), but I dread the idea that someone is taking credit for something that isn’t rightfully theirs.
I am breaking away from the mould, standing out in a specialist crowd, trying to become a bigger fish in a small but very selective pond. For me, Lego is far more than a toy: it is art, sculpture, requiring as much thought as ‘traditional’ art forms but presented in the guise of clean, innocent, reusable plastic. The fact that it is marketed primarily for children inevitably means that Lego is not well-respected as an art; unfortunately this also means that people rarely have any experience with it beyond the single-digit ages, making it incredibly hard for me to express how difficult it is to make something look good. Additionally, I feel that my contemporaries can never truly appreciate my work for what it is, nor can they comprehend how much it means to me; they have not experimented with it themselves, so they simply can’t know.
At this stage I have become rather respected within the relatively small Lego community on deviantArt, for what it’s worth. I realise now that being part of the Bionicle scene has vastly improved my social skills: not only has it encouraged my public speaking in the form of these blogs, but I have learned a great deal about how to give (and respond to) criticism. I quite often receive comments from aspiring MOCers asking me to have a look at their gallery, and naturally I’m eager to help wherever I can. But the actual process of critiquing is a delicate one; the MOCs I have to look at are usually of the same standard as my Beginner ones, which are, frankly, atrocious. The aspects of MOCing which are obvious to me now, such as colour consistency and appropriate framing, are often entirely absent from the MOCs that I’m judging, which can get quite infuriating sometimes. I have to constantly remind myself that I was once in the same position as them, and that what I say about their work has to be appropriately encouraging and helpful. I found that I exploited the exact same mindset when I worked as a maths tutor: I had to praise them for their merits while being stern enough to get my point across, knowing that I was in a position of appointed superiority and that what I was doing was for their benefit. A delicate balance indeed.
I guess that’s what I like most about the online community. Everybody is eager to share ideas, to praise good work, to encourage more building. At no point have I ever felt lonely despite having such a relatively obscure hobby, simply because of how wide the fan base appears to be. The people I’ve met online have been incredibly generous too – I’ve already had one donation of pieces along with a handful of competition prizes, and I am told that another donation is on its way. The sense of humour is so delightfully innocent and good-spirited: were it not for the enthusiasm of my readers, I most certainly would not have gone through with my webcomic Hero Faffory, whose immaturity meant that I never mentioned anything about it to my friends. I guess in some ways, Hero Faffory made me realise how isolated my Lego hobby was; it was a pastime that never left the grounds of my house, and yet was broadcast on deviantArt for anyone who was interested. It was a self-motivated project that lasted for two years without many of my close friends even being aware of its existence.
I often wonder how much of an impact Bionicle has had on my life as a whole. For example, there was a time when I was seriously considering Mathematics as a university degree rather than Engineering, but one of the reasons behind my eventual choice of the latter was that I could actually apply what I’d learned from Lego. The thought processes are surprisingly similar: solve a problem under numerous restrictions, making sure that it looks aesthetically pleasing while efficiently performing its function, and finally present it as a product and discuss it with your peers. Thanks to my experience, I think I am more able to visualise the motion of a mechanism, or to identify the weak points in a structure. In fact we are currently doing a Structural Design course in which we have to design and build a bridge to support a load; I used my piece supply to build a scale model so that my partner and I could visualise everything more clearly. (Bionicle also played a central role in my college proposal, but that’s a topic for another time.) In the past I have toyed with the idea of actually making Lego part of my career - it’s certainly been suggested to me countless times - but I have written this off as a fantasy idea. If I were to either work for The Lego Group or become a freelance seller like ~retinence, I would have to tailor my designs to either be economically profitable or to suit my customer’s desires, and I want neither. The whole point of my Lego hobby is the freedom to build whatever I like, and so I’d want it to stay that way.
Lego has also taught me a couple of things that aren’t directly related to the actual building. Colour is one of them; I talk about this in more detail in my colour blindness journal, but it has allowed me to identify colours that I see in everyday life, even if I’d label them with obscure names like Metru Blue, which is the colour of my bedroom curtains. Photography and photo editing is another hobby I have taken up as a result of my Lego endeavours (and I would encourage other MOCers to do the same – a perfectly good MOC can be ruined by poor photography, which is a piece of advice that I give alarmingly often). And of course, it has provided me with a multitude of platforms to express myself freely, whether it be through blog entries, video reviews or a 62-page webcomic. In contrast, what do you get out of playing games or watching TV? I partake in both, admittedly, but besides the short-term enjoyment and socialising opportunities, you don’t really gain an awful lot.
People’s opinions about my Lego hobby improved vastly upon coming to university. Here, people are far more accommodating towards unusual or quirky pastimes, even though I have far outgrown the suggested age range, and I have yet to receive the hostility that existed before. It’s not uncommon for the sound of tinkering plastic to resonate from my room; I have actually started a project called The Guest Shelf, whereby I encourage any visitors to build something which will then be displayed for all to see. So far I have seven contributions from five different people – perhaps I’ll upload pictures of them sometime. The most interesting thing I gained from this project was that, oddly enough, people weren’t restricted by prior Lego knowledge. There was no such thing as a default skeleton for them; every piece they picked up was to be judged individually, without the mindset of “This is a foot piece. It can only be used as a foot.”, meaning that they had to be creative. Ironically their inexperience forced them to do exactly what I would encourage aspiring MOCers to do!
You know, I’d never actually thought of Bionicle as a fandom before, and yet it perfectly fits my description of one. To me, fandom is the unreserved devotion to a subject, without the need for explanation or justification. The fact that I have devoted so much time, effort and thought into it makes me wonder if or when I’ll ever stop; after all, all my recent building has been done with permanence in mind. I can predict that my general MOCing activity will continue on the current trend, in that it will decline steadily as the years pass until eventually I have no time for it anymore. I don’t think I’ll ever fully grow out of it, though; it will always hold a special place in my heart as the one hobby that remained true throughout my youth. I hope that in the years to come I’ll be able to display my creations as I do now, thinking fondly of times gone by, knowing that it created a solid foundation for so many aspects of my life. All of this, from glorified rearrangement.
On that note, I think I shall call it a day. Thanks for reading.