Nevermind increasingly violent video games or the ever-present danger of an uncensored internet, a far more insidious and unexpected change is afoot that could be affecting our children’s emotional development. Researchers have discovered that the faces on LEGO Minifigures are becoming increasingly angry and less happy. Combined with a trend towards more combat-related LEGO themes, a team led by Christoph Bartneck at the University of Canterbury said “we cannot help but wonder how … this impacts how children play.”
The influence of LEGO is immense. The product is sold in more than 130 countries and the company produced more than 36 billion bricks in 2010 alone. The researchers state that on average each person on earth owns approximately 75 bricks.
Standing exactly four bricks high, the LEGO Minifigure was launched in 1975 with a standard enigmatic smile and yellow skin. In 1989, different facial expressions appeared; different skin colours debuted in 2003; and in 2010 the Minifigures started to be sold independently of other LEGO sets. Around 4 billion Minifigures have been sold worldwide.
Bartneck obtained images of all 3655 Minifigure types manufactured by LEGO between 1975 and 2010. The 628 different heads on these figures were then shown to 264 adult participants recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk online survey website. The participants’ task was to categorise the emotions on the heads in terms of the six main human emotions, and to rate their intensity.
There was ambiguity in the faces – each received an average of 3.9 emotion labels. Looking at historical trends – there was a massive increase in the variety of emotional expressions from early 1990s onwards, a process that continued up to 2010. The vast majority of figures have happy faces (324), but the next most common is angry (192), followed by sadness (49), disgust (28), surprise (23) and fear (11). And the trend is for an increasing proportion of angry faces, with a concomitant reduction in happy faces.
The presence of a body changed the way faces were perceived in different ways depending on the emotion in question. For instance, a body tended to increase ratings for anger and happiness but reduce ratings for disgust and sadness. Skin colour made no difference.
Bartneck’s team also observed that “LEGO has a considerable array of weapon systems in their program” and that the company “is moving towards more conflict based play themes.” Together with the rising prevalence of angry faces, the researchers warned that 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.”
C Bartneck, M Obaid, & K Zawieska (2013). Agents with faces – What can we learn from LEGO Minifigures? [pdf] Proceedings of the 1st International Conference on Human-Agent Interaction (iHAI 2013), Sappor, Japan.
Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest