Lego is Becoming More Violent. Is Society to Blame?

Andrea Gambaro
July 1, 2016

The term 'arms race' is often used to describe historical events such the nuclear escalation during the Cold War or the militarism of North Korea. Now it's being deployed in conversations about Lego, highlighting the plastic-brick maker's struggle to grow and remain relevant without violating its goal of not promoting violence.

A study revealed that the toy firm is including more and more weapon pieces in its kits, sparking headlines warning of the toy company's “history of violence”. But rather than casting a shadow over children's playtime, this “disturbing trend” may tell us something about our modern social values.

Published by PLOS ONE, the study "showed significant exponential increases of violence" since the first swords, axes and lances were included in a castle kit in 1978. Moreover, Lego catalogues have followed the same trend, with 40% of all pages containing violent scenarios. According to this, the researchers conclude that “the violence in Lego products seems to have gone beyond just enriching game play”.

As a commercial enterprise, a change in the product line must be part of a marketing strategy. As RT puts it, “Lego is becoming more violent to boost sales”. Indeed, Lego has been forced to reinvent its strategy in the past 10 years, after financial troubles took it to the brink of bankruptcy in 2004. The company has focused on tapping into pop culture, in a bid to diversify production and expand its audience. It has cultivated a huge social media following, cashed in on products tied to Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and other blockbuster film franchises, and released its own movie. It even created a spoof set of Fifty Shades of Grey figurines, and Lego versions of the Oscar were handed out at the Academy Awards in 2015.

The new strategy has undoubtedly paid off. But as The Conversation notes, popular products often reflect wider societal trends. Non-stop news coverage of armed conflicts, mass shootings and terrorist attacks have served to desensitise people to violence. Moreover, presidential candidate Donald Trump and other politicians have stoked fears of crime and war and framed violence and torture as realities of modern life and means to an end.

The climate of fear has also shaped popular culture. A case study published by Geopolitics linked the resurgence of zombies in video games and television series to the perceived threats of globalisation, arguing the undead are a metaphor for people's fears of others breaking through their political, physical and socio-cultural boundaries.

If the most popular films and TV shows feature swords and lightsabers, Lego has little choice but to include them. But capitalising on pop culture can also mean embracing the rhetoric of violence that has come to dominate our conversations and the media.  As more and more weapons creep into Lego play sets, the company risks violating its aim "to discourage pretend violence" as the main reason for playing. It may be fighting a losing battle; violence has already become the main reason for most of our news bulletins and political discussions.