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Why So Angry Mister Lego?

What the facial evolution of children's toys tells us about our conflict-driven society.

How about a smile?
How about a smile?

MUNICH - Sure, life is no picnic. But do kids have to be taught the hard truths so early and so clearly when all they really want to do is play with their Legos?

That’s the question asked by New Zealand researchers at the University of Canterbury, in Christchurch, who have completed a study showing that the expressions on the faces of Lego figures are getting “angrier.” They suspect that that’s because the toymaker has been introducing conflict-based themes.

The study, which will be presented at the First International Conference on Human-Agent Interaction in Sapporo, Japan, on August 7, examined the facial expressions of all 6,000 mini-figures produced by the Danish toy manufacturer and reached the conclusion that the number of Lego figures whose faces exhibit negative emotions is growing steadily.

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Photo: Josh Wedin

The researchers relate the angry expressions to thematic changes in Lego building sets: "It is our impression that the themes have been increasingly based on conflicts. Often a good force is struggling with a bad one,” explained Dr. Christoph Bartneck, the lead researcher of the study and director of the university’s HIT lab, which focuses on human interface technology. "But the facial expressions are not directly matched to good and evil. Even the good characters suffer in their struggle and the villains can have a smug expression. In any case, the variety of faces has increased considerably."

Most Lego building sets released today belong to certain themes, such as movies or videogames.

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Photo: Josh Wedin

Lego says it can’t understand this criticism of its products. "We don’t support violence, and we always combine conflict with humor," said spokesperson Roar Rude Trangbæk about the university’s findings.

According to Trangbæk, having figures with many facial expressions makes it easier to play out more complex scenes. Lego’s user research shows that boys aged between five and nine like games of conflict "so for example we have policemen who catch criminals." But there are limits to the amount of conflict he added. "We avoid modern war situations, or modern arms. The theme of the game should concentrate on conflict but not violence," Trangbæk said.

For his part, Dr. Bartneck advised the company to take care with expressions and test their effect since toys play an important role in the development of children. “The move away from positive faces could have an impact on how children play,” he said.

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