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Andrea Bonior Headshot

Anger at Play: Have Lego Characters Become Too Aggressive?

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It's not just Internet comments that have gotten angrier over the years: recent research reveals that the faces of Lego characters are also more mad than they were a decade or two ago.

As a mother of three and possessor of a huge vat that combines long-hoarded vintage Legos, modern hey-why-does-this-have-to-be-an-advertisement-for-an-action-film Legos, and everything in between (or maybe those are just pieces of dried cheese), I'm not surprised to see the research bear this out. But as a psychologist, I'm more than a bit concerned.

Our society is full of contradictions about the role of anger and aggression in our daily lives, and how they are supposed to be expressed in children and adults. Just as there are signs that technology is eroding empathy, there are also signs (obvious to anyone who's seen a Baby Bjorn-clad Dad) that we are encouraging a more nurturing side of males. Just as we are more likely to expel a kid for his anger-ridden poetry in English class, we are simultaneously awash in violent video games and T-shirts that say "Boys are stupid. Throw rocks at them." What happened to the middle ground?

Many argue that having "bad guys" in pretend play can be great for learning conflict resolution and allowing a healthy outlet for aggressive impulses. This is all very true; heroes versus villains can be good for developing teamwork, building confidence over fear, and strengthening notions of right and wrong.

But just how many villains do we need in a Lego arsenal? Just what percentage of the faces our kids stare at each day need to -- continually and permanently -- exhibit a menacing and aggressive expression? An additional concern of all these angry little plastic dudes should be their effect on creativity: a bland, somewhat happy face might fit itself into many more nuanced pretend play scenes than a scowling, furrowed-brow Rage Man, and yet the former is gradually giving way to the latter. And for those kids unfazed by using the seemingly unhappy Lego guy to play the role of the beaming protagonist, we can certainly worry that they're getting desensitized to angry faces, which is a problem in its own right.

Perhaps the bigger issue is that Legos used to be a blank slate. They were a bunch of blocks for constructing towers, roller coasters, dinosaurs, mustache combs; you name it. The sky was the limit. The biggest metamorphosis I've noticed over the years isn't just about the angry faces, but the more general shift to uber-specific Lego sets that demarcate exactly how the pieces need to be put together, usually tying into some mega-movie.

Lego must fear that if they keep making just plain old bricks, people can only buy so many and revenue will dry up. But I worry that lessening the blank slates in favor of a "Follow these directions exactly" mindset will have additional negative effects on our children. For any parent who's ever bemoaned the fact that even they can't figure out how to construct the fourth-tail light of that starfighter spaceship (with that teeny piece that will never again be used, except perhaps by the younger sibling to explore as a mid-morning snack), I say, bring on the plain old blocks.

And make the people -- plastic and carbon-based -- smile again.