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LEGO faces getting angrier; impact on children's play is unclear

lego faces
Researchers: “We cannot help but wonder how the move from only positive faces to an increasing number of negative faces impacts how children play.”

LEGO faces have gotten considerably angrier over the past two decades, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

The study also found that LEGO themes have become more combat-related.

Just what this finding says about our current culture is unclear. But, as the authors of the study note, “We cannot help but wonder how the move from only positive faces to an increasing number of negative faces impacts how children play.”

Why would changes to LEGO Minifigures be of interest to child psychologists? Well, to begin with, the toys are ubiquitous. First patented in Denmark in 1958, LEGOs are sold today in more than 130 countries. In 2010 alone, LEGO produced more than 36 billion of its famous bricks, and, on average, each person on Earth owns about 75 of them, according to background information in the study.

In addition, as an article published last year in The Psychologist, the monthly publication of the British Psychological Society, points out, LEGOs are frequently used as a tool in therapy. For example, one study described in the article found that LEGO therapy improved social interaction among children on the autistic spectrum.

Recruited via Mechanical Turk

The current study was led by Christoph Bartneck, an associate professor at the University of Canterbury’s Human Interface Technology Laboratory (and a self-proclaimed fan of LEGO toys). For the study, Bartneck and his colleagues showed 264 adults, recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk online survey website, photographs of 628 different LEGO Minifigure heads, which the researchers had identified from among the 3,655 Minifigures released between 1975 and 2010. (One face got corrupted by a software failure and was subsequently excluded from the study’s final analysis.)

Some background on the Minifigures: They were introduced in 1975. For the first decade or so, all the Minifigures were yellow and had the same enigmatic smile. Then, in 1989, LEGO began introducing Minifigures with other expressions, starting with angry and scared. By 2003, the figures had different skin colors as well, a trend that took off when LEGO expanded into licensed themes, such as Harry Potter in 2004. These licensed-theme Minifigures have been particularly popular, and sales of them have now topped 4 billion.

Six categories of emotion

The study’s volunteers were asked to categorize each emotion depicted on the 627 different Minifigure faces as “happy,” “angry,” “sad,” “disgust,” “surprise” or “fear.” Interestingly, the faces received an average of 3.9 categorizations, a finding that suggests, says Bartneck and his colleagues, that many have a degree of ambiguity.

By calculating the most dominant emotional expression for each face, the researchers found that most of the faces were deemed to be “happy,” followed by “anger,” “sadness,” “disgust,” “surprise” and “fear.”

But there was a clear trend since the early 1990s toward angrier faces.

When Bartneck added the entire body (not just the head) of the Minifigure to the photograph, perceptions took a significant shift. The volunteers were more likely to categorize the emotions on the faces as “angry” or “happy,” and less likely to categorize them with the words “disgust” or “sadness.” The skin color of the figures made no difference in the volunteers’ categorizations, however, although that may have been because the only figure with two different skin colors (natural and yellow) was the Harry Potter one.

A trend toward conflict

The researchers also note that LEGO themes have become increasingly conflict-based.

“Often a good force is struggling with a bad one,” they write. “May it be the good knights against the skeleton warriors or the space police against aliens criminals. 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 considerable.”

The development toward conflict-based play themes “might be unavoidable to sustain a strong market position,” they add. “Still, LEGO might not be able to hold onto its highly positive reputation. The children that grow up with LEGO today will remember not only smileys, but also anger and fear in the Minifigures’ faces.”

You can download and read a PDF of the study here. You can also listen to Barneck discuss his findings on Australian radio here. Bartneck will be presenting his findings at the 1st International Conference on Human-Agent Interaction in Japan later this summer.

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