Research from robot specialist Christoph Bartneck at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand shows that the ratio of happy faces on Lego minifigures has decreased, while the ratio of angry faces has increased.
Since children typically play with Legos, the study suggested this finding could have a negative impact on their development. Legos have been a popular childhood toy since the 1930's. Minifigures were introduced in 1975, and in total 4.2 billion characters have been produced. Researchers said that in 1989 their faces started to get angrier. The Lego brand claims they changed facial expressions to balance out a child's creative needs.
Marriage-family therapist Don Ostendorf says this study shows that the Lego Group is trying to give a broader coverage to what humanity is really like.
“If every face on a doll or a Lego was a smiley face, is it true that everybody always has a smiley face, the truth is no,” said Ostendorf.
A former Redding Police officer, Ostendorf has more than 30 years of experience working with children, specializing in behavioral problems. He believes the shift to display expressions other than happy faces can be beneficial in a child’s development.
“Children frequently do not feel they have the freedom to talk about or express feelings like that because someone is telling them you shouldn’t feel that way,” said Ostendorf.
Ostendorf feels this gives parents the opportunity to educate their children, using the figures as a tool to get them to talk about their feelings.
“Talk about what’s real, what’s really going on in their hearts and minds rather than trying to sequester or keep it down,” said Ostendorf.
Blaine Spence who lives in Redding says his 6- year-old son plays with Legos, and he is not too comfortable with the characters becoming angrier.
“It is a bit disturbing, childhood is suppose to be happy and when they see happy things I think it makes them happy. I don’t know if it’s a huge concern but it’s definitely bothersome,” said Spencer.
Spence says it may even influence his decision when purchasing toys for his child, and he might look for other options besides Legos.
“I think they have a huge impact, that’s what a child does, play. I think it shapes them a lot as they get older,” said Spencer.
Rei Tan is a volunteer with Turtle Bay who is helping out with the Lego display at the museum. The 13-year-old said he enjoys playing with Legos and the characters. He pays close attention to their emotions to place them in different scenarios. Rei said the characters with angry expressions are typically the “bad guys” and the ones with happy expressions play the roles of the “good guys.”
However, Rei said he doesn’t identify with the Lego figures because it is just a make believe fantasy land he controls and doesn’t translate to the real world.
Overall, Ostendorf doesn’t believe the angry Lego figures have a negative impact on children’s development, like the study suggests.
“There are many other influences in life that are going to be much more meaningful to the child and not just a toy they are playing with,” said Ostendorf.
The Lego Brand said they are not allowed to comment on research that is not their own, but their choice to vary figures expressions has proven favorable in their research with children.
If you are interested in learning more about the research by Christoph Barteck, here is a link to the study: http://bartneck.de/publications/2013/agentsWithFaces/bartneckLEGOAgent.pdf