Montageman: A dude who writes

March 28, 2007

Some thoughts on Affect Theory

Filed under: affect — montageman @ 2:50 am

Silvan Tomkins’s affect theory is centered around the idea that the nine primary affects are the chief motivators for all experience. In “The Quest for Primary Motives” Tomkins outlines the nine primary affective responses:


He continues, “These are discriminable distinct sets of facial, vocal, respiratory, skin, and muscle responses,” (58). For Tomkins, all experience is filtered through at least one of the nine affects. Tomkins’s affect theory provides a more comprehensive account of human experience and motivation than either drive theory or cognitive theories of affect (Demos 19). The primary affects are broken down further into positive (interest, enjoyment, surprise) and negative (surprise, fear, anger, distress, shame, contempt, disgust) affects. Tomkins believes that affect is Darwinian in nature, functioning more as a survival tool. “The human being is equipped with innate affective responses which bias him to want to remain alive and to resist death, to resist boredom, and to resist the experience of head and face lowered in shame,” (67) Tomkins states at the end of his “Evolution of the affect system,” essay, whose title is also Darwinian in scope. It is these responses that are elicited from playing videogames, especially the desire to remain alive instead of dying.

The binary of life versus death can be easily confused with the drive to remain alive – it should be made clear that affect and drive are two totally separate ideas. Affect must have freedom in order to flourish, Sedgwick and Frank define affect’s freedom as the capacity to of the individual to feel strongly or weakly, for a moment, or for all his life, about anything under the sun and to govern himself by such motives constitutes his essential freedom (46). Tomkins categorizes freedom in a number of ways including: freedom of intensity, freedom of density, freedom of investment, freedom of affects to combine with, modulate, and suppress other affects, and freedom of consummatory site (Sedgwick and Frank 55-7). Comparatively, drives have a greater sense of urgency attached to them and less options in terms of satiating the urge – be it hunger or breathing, there is a small amount of freedom in terms of time to attend to the drive. Where drives are easily discernible, the affect system of man operates within a much more uncertain and variable environment (Sedgwick 47). There is an interiority with affect that should not be confused with observable behavior. Observable behavior may or may not be connected to affect, although as Tomkins believes, affect is always most observable through facial expressions. For example, in “What and where are the primary affects?” Tomkins gives the following key (this is only part of the key): Interest-Excitement: eyebrows down, eyes track, look, listen; Surprise-Startle: eyebrows up, eyes blink; Contempt-Disgust: sneer, upper lip up (218-19).

The observable nature of affect, while important, is not central to the argument of this paper. The variable and interior dimension is key when talking about videogames. Games have a multitude of devices to affectively effect players in a memorable fashion. As game theorist Diane Carr points out, games seek to generate different affect, and they effectively exploit alternate models to achieve that end (62).

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