Lego Back In Anger

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Memo to Dr. Christoph Bartneck: WHY DO I HAVE TO TELL YOU THIS?

Ah, the issue of violence in children's entertainment. Like death, taxes, and big box-office openings for angsty superhero movies, this debate will always be with us. When someone uses a real gun, we'll look at pixelated guns. When someone gets shot for carrying Skittles, many blame hip-hop.

But those are just the beginning. There is a new force coming to steal your children's innocence. Lock the doors. It's the invasion of the CRANKY LEGOS.

Here's what happened. A University of Canterbury robotics researcher with a lifelong love of Lego, as is appropriate, and who worked for a time as a designer for the toy company, which is impressive, showed six thousand mini-figure heads to a couple hundred people and asked them to judge the facial expressions.

And Dr. Bartneck's findings? More angry faces, and fewer smiling faces than there used to be. Oh no! Frowning Lego dudes! What will this mean for generations yet to come? Let's ask the doctor. ACTUAL QUOTE TIME!

"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."

Well, yes, I suppose, in the absence of other factors like, say, the rampant unemployment and poverty in Britain, we should probably worry about a bunch of faces painted on yellow cylinders. We'll get right on that.

Of course, if you want to place blame for the increase of angry Lego faces, maybe you should look at the real cause. Capitalism. Now, I don't have a problem with angry Lego faces. But what Bartneck either doesn't get, or chooses to dance around to the point of ignoring, depending on how charitably you read his statements, is WHY there are so many new LEGO faces now.

The answer, of course, is licensing.

Before Star Wars Legos, the building bricks weren't associated with any particular narrative. There were very few, if any, minifigs with names, much less personalities, established histories, or character arcs. Of course they were all smiling. They were astronauts and knights and firemen. Those are pretty cool jobs.

But you can't have Batman Legos without some frowning. You can't have Hulk Legos without some anger. You can't have Harry Potter Legos without some angsty scowling. And who the hell knows how the researchers interpreted Darth Vader's facial expression.

People like licensed toys, licensed toys have stories, stories have emotions, emotions register on the face. This is not rocket science. This isn't even 500 pieces of plastic painstakingly assembled into the shape of a rocket science. You don't like it? Fine. That's your prerogative.

But the kids looking at Anakin Skywalker's Lego face are also looking at his real face, and discovering the horrible truth: the real one is less expressive.

And the kids looking at Robert Downey Jr.'s Lego face are looking at his real one. And Elijah Wood's. And all the rest. And none of these people are smiling all the time, either. So forgive me if I conclude that no matter how much you try to hide your grindin'-axe behind your lab coat, you're clearly barking up the wrong plastic tree.