My son, like most five year olds, is obsessed with Lego. And who can blame him? The endless combinations of coloured bricks and mini-figures arrest young and old minds alike.
My parents, now in their 70s, love to help their grandchildren sort and build creations. I often find my parents hunched over my son’s Lego table helping him search for an elusive helmet, arm or brick.
But in the build up to Christmas and my son’s desire to accumulate ever more Lego, I feel increasingly concerned about the level of violence that seems to be part and parcel of these sets.
Although the weapons are plastic, they are designed to pack a mighty (and let’s face it, bloody) punch. From the double-headed axe wielded by ghoulish characters with red eyes and bared teeth, and the ninjas with sickles and swords that are bigger than they are in Ninjago sets; to the Star Wars characters who have blast rifles in each hand, it’s a far cry from when the first Lego castle kit included relatively tame swords, axes and lances.
These days it’s not only the minifigures killing and maiming with cleavers, fighting spears, hand spears, sickles and grappling hook guns, even the vehicles and aircraft are equipped with cannons, guns and missiles designed to mow down anyone who escaped a close-range attack.
I struggle to find the words to explain the reason for why someone would need a spinning dagger with three blades.
My gentle son loves to collect things and so is enthralled by the range and detail of the artillery in Lego. He’ll often ask me, “What’s this used for?” and I struggle to find the words to explain the reason for why someone would need a spinning dagger with three blades.
A study published in the online peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, investigated whether Lego products have become more violent over time. They have. The frequency of weapons has significantly increased from 1978, and so has the violence of the products depicted in their catalogues. Weapons now feature in 30 per cent of Lego’s kits and around 40 per cent of all catalogue pages contain some type of violence.
Of course, exploring conflict is part of the play-work all children must do in order to develop their understanding of all kinds of encounters, including disagreements and their resolution. And it’s important to acknowledge that there is research demonstrating that playful aggressive behaviour is an important element of socio-dramatic play, especially for young boys. However there is a difference between children’s serious aggressive behaviour and playful aggressive behaviour.
Serious aggressive behaviour has the intent to harm, and while the characters in Lego might be looking to save the world, as the brand claims, the catalogues show us that they are definitely not afraid of injuring or damaging things or people.
And this view is not just pervasive in popular children’s toys, but also in fiction aimed at them.
Author Christie Nieman wrote an article for Overland journal in 2016 titled, ‘It’s no hunger games’. Despite her young adult novel, As Stars Fall, selling well in Australia, she had received news from her Australian literary agent that international agents considered her book to be “too quiet”.
“Things do happen in my book,” she wrote. “Lots of things. But not apocalyptic things. Or world-changing things. Or battle-to-the-death things. The things that happen go on mostly inside the people.”
Nieman pondered why there is a perceived requirement to arouse children. “Why do we feel this need to constantly stimulate our young people?” she asked.
These days it’s a struggle to find a “quiet” set without pistols, swords, daggers, blades, spikes and nunchucks.
Why indeed. Why do we need to expose our children to violence and weapons so early in their lives? My son adores his Lego, and I have my own fond memories of hours spent producing elaborate creations, but these days it’s a struggle to find a “quiet” set without pistols, swords, daggers, blades, spikes and nunchucks.
And if you’re after Lego that accurately reflects our racially diverse world, you might struggle. Lego has also been criticised for not including enough characters of colour in their sets.
So what will I do about my son’s insistent requests for Lego this Christmas? When he peers into his Christmas stocking, he’ll find plenty of non-violent play options and there will also be a Lego Friends set. If you don’t have small children in your life, Lego Friends comes in a pink box and is commonly perceived as ‘girls’ Lego’. Therefore there are no weapons. But that’s a whole other article.
Lindy Alexander is a freelance writer and researcher.