Legos are becoming more violent, new study suggests

Researchers in New Zealand found that Legos have become more violent over the last three decades.
Researchers in New Zealand found that Legos have become more violent over the last three decades. Lego

A new study suggests that Legos have become more violent over the last 30 years, with the iconic building bricks locked in “a metaphorical arms race” in the toy business.

That means kits of the colorful blocks now come with more weaponry — guns, swords, cannons, “Star Wars” light sabers — than they used to.

Researchers’ conclusion: Legos “are not as innocent as they used to be.”

The study conducted by the University of Canterbury in New Zealand looked at the number of weapons included in sets of Legos made since 1978. That was the first time weapons of any type were included in the colorful play kits, when a castle kit was sold with a sword and lance.

In 1978, less than 5 percent of Lego sets came with a weapon. Now, nearly 30 percent feature at least one type of weapon, researchers found.

“Or, to look at it another way: Over 70 percent of Lego sets contain no weapons,” notes CNET.

Researchers also found that imagery associated with Legos has become more violent over the years. Nearly 40 percent of the images in the Lego catalog depict violence, they concluded, with scenes involving shooting and threatening behavior increasing dramatically since the 1980s.

Researchers chalked up the changes to the evolving world of children’s entertainment, noting other studies have found more violent parts and pieces included in Playmobil toy sets for children, too.

“Creators and producers of games and movies strive to push the limits of what violent media is allowed to be released to prevent their audience from getting bored of similar content. This creates content that is increasingly creative and violent,” lead researcher Christoph Bartneck wrote in the study, published in the online journal PLOS ONE.

Bartneck, a former Lego employee, has written books about the toys and enjoys building large-scale Lego creations.

“To catch the attention of their customers, toy manufacturers are similarly locked in a metaphorical arms race for exciting new products,” he wrote. “In this race they do not only compete with other toy manufacturers but also with television and video games, which have also become more violent over the years.”

Bartneck told Mashable that he launched the study after looking at old Lego catalogs. “Their products and the scenarios in which they were shown looked so peaceful,” he said.

In its early days Legos used to be mainly building blocks, with ads showing kids and their parents using them to build houses and other idyllic scenes. The study’s researchers pointed to 1995, when the company’s pirate-themed kit with guns and cannons launched a spike in weapons.

In a statement, a Lego spokesman told Mashable that children are the company’s “most important concern” and that what researchers consider violence it considers conflict resolution.

A spokesman told Huffington Post the company tries to use humor when possible to “tone down the level of conflict.”

In fact, test subjects who examined 1,500 images from Lego catalogs dating back to 1973 described the majority of violence was playful.

“We want to develop play experiences that children love, and that at the same time develop essential skills,” Lego’s statement to Mashable said. “Conflict play is a natural part of how children play, and it helps them learn how to deal with conflicts in their own lives. We see a clear distinction between conflict and violence.

“We do not make products that promote or encourage violence. Weapon-like elements in a Lego set are part of a fantasy/imaginary setting, and not a realistic daily-life scenario. The key for us is not a specific number of a given Lego element in the portfolio, but the context, the story around it, and most of all: the play experience for the child.”

Researchers, who acknowledged that working out conflicts is important for children to learn, did not explore the effect of violent toys and imagery on children’s behavior.

Their findings don’t seem to be rattling many parents, including blogger Jerry Thornton, who suggests that the researchers who conducted the study “don’t have the first clue how kids — especially boys — are wired.

“Boys like play-violence. It’s encoded in our DNA. There hasn’t been a boy in the history the human race who didn’t take some inane object and pretend it was a weapon,” Thornton writes. “And if you give a 3-year-old those big toddler Legos and ask him to build a castle, inside of ten minutes he’s going to get bored and fashion a gun out of them. It’s not sociology; it’s nature.

“Now if someone would do a study on the dangers of stepping on Legos in bare feet that your kids left strewn all over the room even though you told them a hundred times to pick them up, I’d be down with that. There’s your real threat.”