Now that Lego comes in systems, it's clear to see that the bricks are marketed at boys. Ninjago, one of the Danish firm's most popular lines, has grown out of the old Lego Ninja system.
With Ninjago, boys collect different minifigs that they can fight with, placing the little Lego dude on its "spinner" and using a card game to decide what weapons it can use. Then the battling boys spin the minifigs at each other to try to knock the opponent's Ninjago off its spinner.
The whole thing mirrors the craze for Japanese-style card games and toys that started with Pokemon - using the cards to give yourself or an avatar powers or special skills that help you defeat your opponents - basically role-playing games with props.
There's still building in Ninjago and that's still the most popular bit of the system, Schou said. But the spinner battle scenarios show that Ninjago is aimed at boys, as do the adverts for the toys.
Even in Lego City, a less obviously gendered environment, the focus is on action sets - ambulances, police and criminals, firefighters - and crucially the minifigs are all male, even though there are women in those areas in real life.
In fact, the evolution of the minifig takes Lego all the way from its unbiased past into its gender-specific, morally unambiguous future. The minifig's features were originally just the yellow head with a smile, nothing else.
Now evil minifigs have stubble, female minifigs have painted red lips, a number of minifigs are skin-coloured instead of yellow and of course, Lego Friends has the minidoll.
Schou says that the Friends line is successful, although he admits that some girls are interested in other lines, particularly the City line, the most realistic of the boys' systems. He calls Friends a version of City for girls, but why do girls need their own city? And why is it populated with gender-specific activities?
"The Friends line is based on very deep dialogue testing with girls from five years and upwards on what they really want to have," Schou claims.
Again, Lego won't tell The Register how it conducts its research, but just before Lego Friends was launched in December 2011, the firm told Bloomberg that the research for Friends was the same research it did back in 2004 and 2005 when the company started to lose money for the first time.
Next page: What do kids really want?
I played with LEGO a LOT as a child, but my elder sister wasn't interested. So I don't think it's a new phenomenon.
Now I'm a parent, I've got two real problems with LEGO. Firstly, it's REALLY expensive. Any model of any substance is £25 or more. It makes it very difficult to buy as a birthday present for someone else's child, because it's too expensive. The smaller sets are incidental "stocking filler" types, but are still too expensive to be bought as an incidental thing like a bribe for good behaviour. These two factors combine to largely eliminate the mass-aggregation of sets that I had as a boy.
Secondly (and this is something James May commented on when he built his LEGO house) too many of the pieces are single-use. In order to provide visual richness to the end product, the typical set has many parts that are suitable only for that set. This further dilutes the original aim of LEGO of it being "a new toy every day." Every set seems to be a model, an end-goal clearly in site. I remember getting sets that were basically big boxes full of bricks with a few ideas. Now you have multi-page build manuals, bagged component groups and a over-reliance on the construction being a process that must be followed exactly to achieve a pre-determined goal, rather than it being general principles of construction that allow the child to make what he (or she) has in their head.
Very true. These days the box has 4 blocks and some stickers. Lego for me was a huge cardboard box full of lego. It wasn't (until technix, and even then there was that continual quest to build a working helicopter) that you had a box that was supposed to be a car, you had a huge box that could be whatever you wanted it to be with no prompting. When the girls were there they helped shape the end result. So heman or liono's castle might have an annex for barbie or shera but the goal was never gifted to you.
I took my kids to a lego store and its full or prefab junk, I asked where the sets of blocks are and was led to the back of the store and showwn every freakin kit on the way before I got to some stupidly overpriced woefully small 'buckets'. It's like kids aren't allowed to think or imagine for themselves.
Re: Market stratification makes me sad
"Even 30 and 40 years ago Lego sets were still kits intended to build a particular thing like a space ship or police station."
I'd tend to agree but the difference is that the kits of 30-40 years ago were generally regular Lego blocks with instructions and the correct quantities to build a model, occasionally with some stickers, but they could be made in conjunction with just about everything else. Today's kits usually have a fair number of custom blocks and/or colours.