Many of those seemingly benign bricks are actually weapons.
By Tom Jacobs
Concerned that your kids are spending too much time playing violent video games? If so, it’s surely a relief to discover them spending quality time with their LEGOs.
Well, those positive feelings may be based on a false premise.
“The LEGO Company’s products are not as innocent as they used to be,” a research team from New Zealand writes in PLoS One.
Using two different metrics — the frequency of weapon bricks in LEGO sets, and violence-related images in product catalogs — a team led by Christoph Bartneck of the University of Canterbury reports the company’s products have grown “significantly more violent” over the years.
While the researchers do not test whether this trend is harmful to children, their findings appear inconsistent with the official company policy, which states that “LEGO products aim to discourage pretend violence as a primary play incentive.”
It is disquieting to discover how thoroughly an atmosphere of violence has seeped into children’s entertainment.
“The violence in LEGO products seems to have gone beyond just enriching game play,” the researchers write. Given that LEGO is now “the world’s largest toy manufacturer,” selling their products in 140 countries, this is not a trivial matter.
In their first study, the researchers analyzed “changes in the proportion of LEGO bricks that are weapons, and the proportion of LEGO sets that contain weapons.” They focused on the years between 1978, when the first weapon bricks — a sword, a halberd, and a lance — were released, and 2014.
Bartneck and his team utilized set inventory lists from bricklink.com, “the world’s largest online marketplace for after-market LEGO trading.” The researchers defined as a weapon every brick included in the website’s “Minifig, Weapon” category. This technique probably produces an underestimate of the total, since it excludes certain weapons “such as those available in the highly weaponized Bionicle theme.”
Even with that omission, “There has been a significant increase in the proportion of weaponed sets, and the proportion of weapon bricks, across time,” the researchers report. “Today, nearly 30 percent of LEGO sets contain at least one weapon brick, and this does not even include weapons that consist of an assembly of non-weapon bricks.”
To gauge how the product is perceived by customers and marketed by the company, the researchers conducted a second study, which focused on the product catalogs LEGO has produced either once or twice yearly since 1950.
Images in the catalogs show LEGO sets “in the context of a play scenario,” presenting scenes in which “the Minifigures and models act out their intended behavior.”
These images were analyzed by 161 people recruited online, each of whom rated an average of 29 such scenes. Depictions of physical violence, as well as “nonverbal psychological aggression,” were noted, as was the intensity, clarity, and vividness of such violence.
The researchers found the presence of violent scenes (in the judgment of study participants) increased significantly over the decades, to the point where about 40 percent of the images in the 2010 to 2015 catalogs “were perceived as containing some kind of violence.”
“In particular, scenarios involving shooting and threatening behavior have increased over the years,” the researchers write. “The perception of nonverbal psychological aggression increased at a similar rate.”
“The LEGO company often claimed that their violence normally happens within a humorous context,” Bartneck and his team add, “yet the results show that ‘humorous’ is the least likely atmosphere” to be depicted in the catalogue images.
“It is unlikely that the LEGO company is the only toy manufacturer whose products have become increasingly violent,” they caution. Such companies are “locked in a metaphorical arms race for exciting new products” with their competitors for kids’ time and attention. Plus, they’ve got to deal with—you guessed it — video games.
Whether the results are harmful to kids and society remains an open question. Evidence that links violent video-game play to increased aggression is mounting, but toy guns don’t seem to have the same effect.
Nevertheless, it is disquieting to discover how thoroughly an atmosphere of violence has seeped into children’s entertainment — even where we might not expect it.