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Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Bashing LEGO? That Makes Me Mad!

Let's talk about LEGO. Between the Danish-toy manufacturer and women and Japan, it seems like that's all I talk about.

I like LEGO… I find it a nice escape from the realities of the world where women and Japan rarely intrude - which sucks, but what are you going to do?

I sometimes mull over how two pieces can be joined together in different ways, which gets my creative juices flowing. Now, I am not talking about women.

Anyhow, I never looked at LEGO for anything other than what it is… a building toy.

Back when I was a kid, I never had LEGO. I had Meccano - steel construction toy that I hated and a wood burning set that always burned me more than the wood - I hated it.

But when my nearly eight-years-my-junior-brother was old enough, he started getting the odd LEGO set, and I would build him a few kits for him to play with - a fire engine, ambulance and helicopter come immediately to mind.

It was pretty easy to build, and didn't really capture my imagination as well as a good Uncle Scrooge comic book by the master Carl Barks.

But then… sometime in the early 1990s, LEGO began to change… it began producing sets that had a bit more detail… a bit more realism… in fact, the difference was like night and day.

As an adult in my mid-20s, I didn't even know about this, because I was already in Japan and was playing with women 100% more than building blocks.

In the 2000s, LEGO upped the ante again… offering complex kits that AFOLs (adult fans of LEGO) and kids could enjoy building.

Along the way the Minifigs (miniature figures) also became more complex. Yes, they changed the way they were constructed while still maintaining the classic points of articulation, but they also gave the Minifigs better clothing, better hair, and more realistic looking faces.

Back in the old days, LEGO Minifigs had a pair of black dot eyes and a black line smile (there has never been a nose, which gives it its unique look).

Occasionally you would find a Minifig with a cheesy black mustache, that no matter how you sliced it somehow continued to make everything look 'European' rather than global…. even though all characters had one skin tone - yellow. 

As well… instead of the insipid smile, LEGO created Minifigs with more natural looking smiles… scowls… grins, gritty determination, anger, angst and more… all in conjunction with beads of sweat, scars, eye-patches, sunglasses, wild and wooly hair and clothing.

At last, when you play with your LEGO sets, you actually have people who look like they are dressed for the event!

And yet… despite this upgrade to a more realistic toy, some people are keen to point out the flaws of such an endeavor… that it seems as though a kid's toy is getting angrier and angrier with each successive year, a fact made by a New Zealand researcher.

The MiniFg, in its small-format (see my photo above for an original Gas Station attendant and Astronaut) has had about 3.7 billion of the little buggers produced since their debut in 1978.
Before that… they had a larger look and feel, as evidenced by that large scale head (also in the same photo).

According to Dr. Christoph Bartneck of the University of Canterbury the number of happy expressions on Lego mini-figures is on the decline – in contrast, the number of angry faces are increasing. A greater variety among the characters has been regularly introduced every year since the 90s – but anger seems to be the more popular expression plastered over their tiny plastic faces.
Dr. Bartneck, who has studied 6,000 Lego mini-figures, and will present a paper on his findings at the First International Conference on Human-Agent Interaction in Sapporo, Japan (I will always find a link!) starting August 7, 2013, finds this trend unsettling.

Bartneck is right, of course - there are more angry faces in LEGO… but to find the trend unsettling - really? Is this guy a wimp? Unsettling?

Perhaps I'm jumping all over him without hearing his side of the story.
But first… I said Bartneck is right about more angry faces.

LEGO makes a great variety of themed sets: From Toy Story, Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, DC Universe, Marvel Universe, Prince of Persia, Lord Of The Rings, The Hobbit, Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles, SpongeBob, Cars, and the upcoming Lone Ranger movie, as just a drop in the bucket.
It also manufactures it's own line of themed sets: from a Dinosaur Park; Ninjago, Chima, Alien Conquest Earth Defence, Galaxy Squad, Friends, City, castle, Monster Fighters, Pharaoh's Quest, Racers - and these are just the one's they make now.

LEGO releases and discontinues sets and themes all the time (like the awesome Power Miners or Japanimation-related Exo-Force). And each country can have it's own LEGO sets not available in other countries. Brick happens.

So… everyone can understand that when producing licensed sets like Star Wars, you can quite capture the feel of the theme if Darth Vader is smiling. So under the removable medical helmet, he looks like a white faced scarred man - just like he is in the movie.

Dinosaur Park - you are hunting dinos… should you be smiling? No! Sweating. Nervous. Gritty determination. Not clean-shaven. Scarred from being bitten.

What's wrong with showing a bit of realism with the sets?

The City sets involving police always offer a criminal to chase… should they all have idiotic grins?
Even kids who played cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians as kids weren't all wearing painted on smiles! No… there was concentration as they fired their imaginary bullets from their imaginary guns into the head of their friends. "I got you!"

So… why can't art imitate life? It certainly isn't an exact duplicate of life… it's not a battle between religious extremism, or race-related…

Now… you saw my finger-gun exercise above - right… something kid's can't do at school without being suspended or branded a hooligan or worse…

Well… the University of Canterbury's Bartneck is concerned how the move from only positive faces to an increasing number of negative faces, armed with compatible mini-weapons, influences child play.

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

Dr. Bartneck says the themes are becoming more about conflict – the battle between good and evil – a good force struggling against a villainous one, branding more and more characters with either strife or smugness.

He is correct. It's no longer - let's build a house out of these bricks… and now a car like they had in the early days.

But then again… what did kids do with their LEGO back then. Did they simply drive the cars to school and then drive back to the house… or, did they race the cars around the furniture, fly into the air and crash, thereby necessitating the fire engine and ambulance to show up to cart the still-smiling
1970s and 1980s Minifig to a hospital?

Kids crave adventure. Just building and playing safely is boring. Dr. Bartnck chooses not to see that, as he is only focused on the angry faces becoming more prevalent in LEGO.

Look… if parents are buying their eight-year-old a Harry Potter LEGO set… you know that it's not all peaches and cream! If you are aware, from Book and movie 4 on - people die. Is this an appropriate theme for your kid? No? Then why are you buying him or her LEGO?

Well… no one has to die in LEGO. In fact… I have yet to see a DEAD Minifig with the "X-'d" out eyes.  Okay… okay… there are skeletons (and horrible mimes) - see my photos… but they are actually more 'undead', as everyone knows that the dead can not be re-animated.

So what is Dr, Bartneck's problem… albeit in a very small way, is LEGO creating a more realistic world for kids to play in? Yes, it is.
But, I believe - and Dr. Bartneck is not looking at this - is that kids are always looking to play in the real world.

What… should they live in the saccharin world of the Smurfs - where all is tra-la-la-la-la-laaaa-ing? Why is that man trying to eat the small blue people, daddy? Isn't this horrific?

Bugs Bunny? Why is that boy rabbit dressing up as a girl Tasmanian devil and putting a lipstick covered bear trap in his mouth to kiss the boy Tasmanian devil? Why doesn't the roadrunner study science? Is this weird? Interspecies cross-dressing and birds that defy the laws of gravity. Don't worry, dropping something heavy on your baby brother's brain won't hurt too much. You can just put a new one in.

Dr. Bartneck fails to realize that angry faces have been around for a long time. Ugh… me no remember because me am stupid caveman.

So what if LEGO has more angry faces now than ever before. The point is that it still has a lot of happy faces.

LEGO along with its themed and licensed theme sets, also offers mystery pack sets of 16 characters… if you feel the packaged product you might be able to tell just what it is you are buying…

Now onto it's 10th series, these sets offer some great Minifigs… everything from:
Classic Monster themes: Medusa, Creature Black Lagoon, Vampire, werewolf, witch, Frankenstein's monster, Mr. Hyde, Mummy, Manbat, Genie, Mermaid, Leprechaun, Zombie, and more.
Costume set: guys in a rabbit suit, gorilla suit, Godzilla suit, Chicken suit and more...
Ancient Warrior set: Aztec, Mayan, Ninja, Native American, Gladiators, Musketeer, Cowboy, Mexican in serape...
Circus: Clown, ringmaster, magician,
Modern stuff: Kid with doll, man with newspaper,
Sports: Baseball player w/ glove and one with a bat, skateboarder, skier, ski jumper, hockey player, figure skater, surfer, Race driver, Boxers, Judo-ka, weightlifter, snowboarder, soccer player, wrestler and more.
Weird stuff: Judge w/wig (looks good w/Mr. Hyde), Tarot card reader (w/2 cards),Haz Mat-suit guy sweating, Kimono woman, Sailor (those three all in the same series), butler w/tray, Scott w/Pipes, Painter with palette and brush... there so much more…

And you know what? They smile where applicable.

The Viking man and woman looked stern. The Native American Indians are smiling. The Ninja and
samurai are grim. The crash-test dummy has neither smile nor angst.

What's wrong with these? Nothing. Kids glance at the Minifig and then start playing with them - or as is more than likely, they are placed away as part of a showcase. Kids aren't dwelling on the negative aspects of whether or not the character is smiling or not. They look - say cool - and then play.
Gods! Leave it to the academics to suck the life out of a toy!

If you would like to read the Bartneck study, click HERE. I know what point he's making, it's correct, but it's making waves out of nothing.

I can't wait to see what sort of reaction Bartneck's study receives in Sapporo later this summer.
Andrew Joseph

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