UC News - University of Canterbury - New Zealand

Concern about angry faces on LEGO mini-figures

Dr Christoph Bartneck Image Caption

4 June 2013

The number of happy faces on LEGO toy mini-figures is decreasing and the number of angry faces is increasing, a University of Canterbury robot expert says.

UC’s HIT Lab Acting Director Dr Christoph Bartneck has studied all 6000 LEGO mini-figures and will present a paper on his findings at the First International Conference on Human-Agent Interaction in Sapporo, Japan starting August 7.

"It is important to study how to create appropriate expressions and how these expressions are perceived by the users.  Children’s toys and how they are perceived can have a significant impact on children,’’ Dr Bartneck says.

"We cannot help but wonder how the move from only positive faces to an increasing number of negative faces impacts ON how children play.

"So far LEGO has at least not produced classical military themes. The Megablocks company, on the other hand, is producing LEGO compatible construction toys that do fill this market space.

"Their HALO line of products, which is directly related to the popular computer game of the same name, is clearly embedded in a military culture. Other companies, such as Brickarms, are also already offering LEGO compatible weapons for mini-figures.

"The number of new faces that the LEGO company introduces every year is increasing steadily. LEGO started producing a greater variety of faces in the 1990s. Happiness and anger seem to be the most frequent emotional expressions.

"We considered the distribution of faces across emotional categories in the context of the LEGO themes. Most mini-figures are released in sets that belong to a certain theme, such as Pirates or Harry Potter.

"It is our impression that the themes have been increasingly based on conflicts. Often a good force is struggling with a bad one.

"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 considerably.’’

Dr Bartneck says LEGO, founded in Denmark in 1932, has a considerable array of weapon systems even though the weapons mainly appear in the fictional themes. But their presence indicates LEGO is moving towards more conflict based play themes.

LEGO may 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 mini-figures' faces.

Designers of toy faces should take great care to design the expressions and to test their effect since toys play an important role in the development of children.

"The example of the mini-figures show that to appeal to users it is necessary to offer a wide range of emotional expressions for today's users. Instead of focusing on realistic expressions, it may be worthwhile to increase the variability of expressions. A comic style expression is sufficient to convey a full spectrum of emotions and intensities,’’ Dr Bartneck says.

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