The Emotional Expressions of LEGO Minifigure Faces

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I'm sure it won't have escaped your notice that over the last 20 years or so the number of different faces and facial expressions given to minifigs has increased considerably, and continues to do so.

Dr Christoph Bartneck, author of the unofficial LEGO minifig catalogues, has published a paper based on responses to an online questionnaire which aimed to understand what emotions the faces of minifig express.


Here's an abstract of the paper:

Toys play an important role in the development of children. LEGO bricks are one of the world's most popular toys and the Minifigure is the centerpiece of every LEGO construction. We investigate and present a summary of the development of the facial expression for all LEGO Minifigures that were released between 1975 and 2010. Our findings are based on several statistical tests that are preformed on data gathered from an online questionnaire.

The results show that the LEGO company started in 1989 to dramatically increase the variety of facial expressions. The two most frequent expressions are happiness and anger and the proportion of happy faces is decreasing over time. Through a k-cluster analysis we identified six types of facial expression: disdain, confidence, concern, fear, happiness, and anger. In addition we tested if the perception of the face changes when the face is presented in the context of a complete Minifigure. The impression of anger, disgust, sadness and surprise were significantly influenced by the presence of context information.

The distinctiveness of the faces was, however, not significantly improved. The variation in skin color did also not change the perception of the Minifigure's emotional expression. We speculate that The children of today will remember LEGO toys not with the same overall positive associations as the current adults do, but may remember the full complexity of faces that act in conflict situations.

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I'm not entirely convinced that it was a worthwhile piece of research or that it tells us anything we didn't already know, but if you are interested in scientific analysis it will make interesting reading.

(Minifig images from The Daily Brick)

31 comments on this article

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By in United States,

This could be interesting.

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By in United Kingdom,

Seems like a rather odd thing to study like this, but interesting nonetheless. I hope the range of expressions diversifies more and more with time.

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By in France,

^^ I've read the paper now. It is not.

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By in United States,

It seems like they're assuming Lego's just decided to make the formerly nice, normal City denizens progressively angrier or meaner. It doesn't recognize that most of the angrier faces belong to villains, who are supposed to look that way.

I'd bet that the Lego produces more good guys vs. bad guys sets these days than they did 20 years ago, and naturally, the bad guys have to look bad. That doesn't mean kids will get a negative impression of Lego any more than they would any other toy/cartoon/movie that pits good guys vs. bad guys. It's their impression of the good guys that matters.

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By in United States,

This doesn't seem to take into account that some people's normal expression "appears mean" as in their normal facial structure (i.e. without consciously moving muscles) is not that of a smiley happy person, but rather slightly scowly at times. They are still happy, content people, but the cover belies the book inside.

Personally, I think this study is a bunch of hooey.

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By in United States,

^ Well, researchers have do something to fill pages and make a name for themselves. Trying to prove a countertintuitive point about a beloved children's toy is the kind of "hip," pop-culture-oriented research that gets you mainstream attention, even if the methodology and conclusion are flawed.

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By in United Kingdom,

The conclusions are fairly simplistic and quite limited. Years ago there was a smiley face or nothing, so any deviation from that is going to lead to fewer 'happy' minifigures. As a broader range of facial expressions continues to be introduced, this will naturally impact the percentage of happy faces. Big wow. The increase in 'angry' faces against 'happy' faces is also based on distinct minifig heads, and fails to take into account the actual number of minifigures.

I dare say that there would be some significant differences between licensed and non-licensed themes...

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By in United States,

Not too many happy minifigs now days, even though with new jobs like mining, and even a town hall. Although not too many houses for them to live in :P

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By in United States,

I would be more concerned with the rise of the LEGO police state.

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By in Netherlands,

Apparently, Dr Bartneck has never heard of Bricklink:
"This does have a dramatic consequence for Minifigure collectors, since they will have to buy every set to be able to secure one copy of every Minifigure." I don't know why he writes minifigure with a capital M.

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By in United States,

^^Haha, and obviously fires continue to rage uncontrollably in Legoland, requiring constant deployment of new equipment every year or two.

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By in United Kingdom,

The paper was an intriguing read, but honestly I am really befuddled on why it was even written in the first place, there are other far more useful topics to focus on..

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By in United Kingdom,

Anything other than a plain smiley can jog on.

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By in Australia,

I reckon licenced sets have something to do with it..how many 'happy' star wars minifigs do you see for example? Not that theres anything wrong with that, but thats just the way it is. Likewise most City minifigs are generally 'happy'

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By in United Kingdom,

Silly and amusing. I've read worse forum threads...hell, I've even started them :0)

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By in Australia,

As interesting as this is, I personal don't feel children will look back and notice the anger of the mini-fig, but rather just play, and remember the actual LEGO. The faces are used for what ever situation the LEGO Mini-Fig faces, and what license, category it is in. Still a very interesting/strange topic.

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By in United Kingdom,

@Diederik - The word Minifigure is trademarked so ought to be capitalised, although very few follow this rule.

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By in United States,

I was hoping it would be a little bit more interesting, but it was kinda boring. I am curious how they exactly counted double face figs. Maybe it mentioned it and I missed it.

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By in United States,

I haven't read it yet (soon), but I showed a collection of minifigs to a social-science instructor at my University (I teach composition, she teaches marriage and family living), and she automatically wanted to do a similar study to this.

Her idea followed what I hope (reading soon) would be the same premise as has been found in other child-play environments, children repeat what they see in play. If they see anger, their figures play out anger. She asked me where the nice smiley face went, and I said that it is still around. Her gut reaction was that the change from one face to many different faces on the minifigs would allow children to play out more violent realities with Lego figures. She seemed to believe that the neutrality of the original face, which is a smiling face, drove lego play to relive a certain style of mental thought. I remember this survey... glad to finally see some results from it, no matter what they are.

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By in United States,

I think I remember this researcher soliciting participants for the survey last year here on Brickset. I and many other Bricksetters took the LONG survey only to post forum responses indicating that the choice in emotion was very limited and did not allow for the range of faces displayed. I specifically remember a common complaint that there was no option for "smug" which is intensely common, so most respondents HAD to select angry or some other emotion that probably was interpreted as negative.

I'm not surprised to hear that the report is not very good; the instrument was flawed. Perhaps, if the researcher is really committed to this line of inquiry, he could solicit feedback from LEGO users about which faces they like the best and what emotion they would attribute to those faces.

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By in United Kingdom,

Wow I'm amazed at the number of experts on child psychology we have commenting on this website. Or perhaps are people as is so often the case on the internet offering their opinions on subjects they know nothing about.

"I'd bet that the Lego produces more good guys vs. bad guys sets these days than they did 20 years ago, and naturally, the bad guys have to look bad."

Really? I have plenty of 'bad guy' sets from the last 30 years and for example all of my Blacktron figures are smiling bad guys. Maybe do some research before offering your tupence worth.

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By in Russian Federation,

In my opinion, it's great that new minifigs have so many different emotions, not only smiles that look silly sometimes.

As for me, I do not like to see many evil faces with technical implants and scares, but we need some! That's about action series. In licensed ones, we often have two variations - serious face and battle face, but this is quite realistic. And collectible minifigures still reminds me of classical ones - some of them are even too 'happy'...

About child psychology and development, I can't support these ideas. I want to have opportunities to make everything ( as many things as possible, at last) from LEGO! There are some really great classical sets, but they are way too simply for contemporary builders and collectors.

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By in Australia,

I have a habit of naming my Lego population of minifigs (in my town setting). It used to be quite easy, but these days, you need to come up with a name that matches the figure's unique face. It's not easy.

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By in United States,

@jsworpin, to connect your thoughts with some of the earlier statements, Blacktron is an "old" line now - about 35 years old. I believe the point was made that the mini-fig faces have increased in anger over time. If that were the case, then it would completely fit your statements, and the earlier ones, that the overall effect of lego mini-figure faces could change a child's lego experience and future fondness for lego (once they are adults).

@robb, I think I was one of the people questioning the lack of "labels" for the various faces, and I still fully agree with that statement. Smug is a very common look on the criminal faces, and that look shows through if a person watches one of the short Lego produced Police/Crook videos. Smug is the major "play" factor in much of those sets.

I just reviewed the References page for this document. It seems that this is a completed paper, but not one that has yet been supported within any publications. The document is "published" without the name of any publication stated. Also, the various authors of the document are cited in this paper, yet when cited the entries for their other publications state "submitted" - meaning sent off but not yet accepted (if ever accepted).

Also, since the book published by Bartneck was self-published, a red-flag should be raised at any respectable journal. As both an AFOL and a person who believes in honest representation within social sciences, and a member of the academy, I did contact the International Journal of Computer Sciences with a link to this thread. A further review of this article's "methods" does need to be reviewed...

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By in United States,

Seems like an utterly ridiculous study and a blatant waste of time to me. :P Reading just the little excerpt, I can agree that faces are becoming less "happy" as time wears on, but I think most of us already knew that. :P However, I think that is mostly to be attributed to a meaner, more violent culture. Kids play with that stuff, so LEGO makes it. Not overly violent, but LEGO has gotten a little darker.

Still, I will reiterate that these types of social/development studies seem overall ridiculous in my humble opinion. :P

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By in United States,

This article/ study is BS. There are many outstanding studies in the psychology/ sociology field and this is not one of them.

But at the same time, there is no way that the Lego characters are becoming more negative/ mean/ whatever... it is the simple fact that Lego is a more advanced/animated product in every way compared to 1975 or even 1985. And I could provide countless examples of really mean/ violent/ racist toys that predated Lego by a long shot.

BTW, what if Lego still had the standard happy faces only... or the original no face... wouldn't these same people doing this study claim that children are not being exposed to the *true human experience* within their play of experiencing a variety of human expressions?

By making a variety of Lego faces starting in 1989, I see it as simply a natural progression just like the larger molded Lego pieces or licensed Lego products... it was going to happen and had nothing to do with appeasing our needs for violence indirectly or directly.

And finally... the USA at least is experiencing a continual decline for over 25 years in violent crimes across the country. There are occasional crazed ones on the news but things are actually getting much better compared to the times when Lego figs had "smiley faces" only.

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By in United Kingdom,

Well, that was pretty much pointless. Quite poorly written too.

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By in United States,

it would be interesting to see the association with the Joker figures facial expression. After all, that madman is always smiling :)

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By in Bolivia,

Why does it seem that everyone else can write papers about LEGO and not me?

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By in New Zealand,

@krklint: The paper is currently only published on the web. It has been submitted to a journal and is currently under review. The publication process is taking very long and I did not want the LEGO community to wait any longer for the results since they helped so much with gathering the responses. Hence the pre-print release.

I am amazed how many negative reactions this article has caused. I wonder if this is the usual internet conversation rudeness or whether something else is in the air. Will we see an instantiation of Godwin's law?

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By in United States,

@bartneck,

I think the negative reactions share a clear overall message, the results published are being seen as misleading. I am not surprised that the review process is taking a very long time. I find that the members of the brickset forum are highly educated and very aware of when researched information has integrity.

Though I do not doubt that the original intention of the research was meant to locate meaning from the facial expressions of minifigures, the original responses to the survey (when the survey was first administered) should have raised questions in your mind. A further review of limitations should have been then examined, and a new survey should have been developed - and there were questions raised about the survey when it was first administered.

If I were on the peer review board for your article, I would be sending you the exact comments found in this thread - and as discovered with "journalist" Jonah Lehrer (previously with the New Yorker magazine), under-developed information can lead to serious consequences.

In the end, members of this community, members of the community your survey was directed to (I being one who filled it out), are attempting to help you out. It does sound negative, but it is also professional criticism.

Best thing that ever happened to me, early in my career, was to receive similar criticism. It saved me from publishing inadequate works. I highly doubt anyone is going to jump to a Hitler reference with your article, but when you reference information collected within a dedicated community, you'll find that community will build you up when your on target, and point out the flaws when you are off target. Currently, your results are off target, if only because your original k-cluster created a gap (the smug face) within your research results. I personally would wish someone to point out an issue with my own research before publication, than after; and this is what the peer review process within academic and professional publications is designed to do. Here, you see negative comments for a reason, but it is easily fixed (though it would demand time to carry out fresh research).

Side note: 60% of my own research deals with how the information one posts online can positively and negatively affect their careers in the long term. Even self-publishing to the web opens a person up to review... and can carry a negative or positive reaction (short term and long term). You are currently in the short term, as you still control where this document is seen... and you still have the opportunity to re-establish your research question before someone publishes it in a place where you do not have control of the document.

If you do decide to rework your research, I am positive that this community will support you another time!

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