Most people have played with Legos and associate them with harmless fun. But a new study casts a more suspicious view of the iconic toys. New Zealand researcher Dr. Christoph Bartneck has done an in-depth study of some 6,000 Lego mini-figures, and concludes they have taken a negative turn in the past 20 years. The study finds that since the company began introducing new characters and themes in the 1990s, the number of angry faces on Lego toys is increasing, while the number of traditional happy-faced Lego figures is decreasing. That change coincides with more characters and themes based on conflicts.
Dr. Bartneck concludes that those more negative, emotional themes could be harmful to child development, since young children are the primary users of Legos. But other experts disagree. Robert Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University, reached the opposite conclusion of the study. "I actually think this is a good change for Lego," he tells KTRH. "I mean, when kids play, the idea is not to be given the impression that every single person has always got this big goofy smile painted on their face." Thompson also points out that children have been raised with "conflict-based" toys for years, such as G.I. Joe.
For its part, Lego says it tests all of its toys and characters with child experts and child psychologists before they are even released. While happiness and anger are the most frequent emotional expressions of Lego figures, they also include emotions like surprised, scared, and even enigmatic. Those terms could also describe some people's reaction to this study. "I think of all the things threatening modern American childhood, probably frowny faced and angry faced Legos are not even in the top 10,000," says Thompson.