Spotlight on player perceptions of personal space on Large, Multi-touch Displays

Tuesday, June 16, 2020
by Marisa Benjamin

New research by Rina R. Wehbe and collaborators from the Cheriton School of Computer Science and the Games Institute at University of Waterloo explores territoriality in playful applications. In the paper, Wehbe et al. investigates the relationship between digital and physical spaces as they apply players’ understanding of shared space, collaboration, and social behaviours.

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Touch screen
Similar to the social contracts discussed in a previous paper by Wehbe et al. 2017 (full citation below), the paper suggests that one respects others by cautiously being aware of boundaries and considering the context of the interaction to decide if it is acceptable to enter with another person’s physical or digital space.

The findings were collected through an experimental protocol approved by the University of Waterloo, Office of Research Ethics. During the study, researchers measured digital metrics (e.g. touch input, enemies targeted), observed player interactions and interviewed participants about their experience playing the bespoke game they created.

The game carefully designed for the study follows a space invaders trope, inviting two players to protect the Earth from hostile alien forces. Players were given a set of shared tools (weapons) needed to defeat the different enemy types. The catch is that only one weapon of each type is available, as enemies close in from both sides, players must quickly learn to collaborate. (Link: download the Gameplay Walkthrough as a PDF).

Alternatively, players may also choose to steal tools from the other player to defend their territory against the incoming arsenal. "I think this is one of my favourite parts of the study" admits Rina R. Wehbe, lead author of the study and Computer Science PhD candidate, "seeing how players negotiated, shared, or fought over the tools and space. I felt it was insightful to observe the participant’s actions, strategies, and behaviours when the pressure of the game surmounted."

The tools were not the only variable manipulated by the researchers, participants were assigned to different conditions; either they were either free to move around in the space or were restricted to working within fixed workplaces. In the study, the participants played two versions of the game, one with a collaborative shared score, and the other a competitive score.

“We were looking to see how physical freedom vs. restriction and competition vs. cooperation affected player behaviour,” says Wehbe. Specifically, the authors monitored physical distance between players, success in the game (number of enemy kills), and feedback about how players felt about one another afterwards.

One of the resulting themes from the data demonstrated that the social condition (Cooperative vs. Competitive play) changed players perceptions of what was considered acceptable behaviour. Players often likened their perception of what was polite to 'Good Table Manners'. “Reaching over another person’s workspace would be synonymous with reaching over another person’s plate at dinner,” says Wehbe, "You just don't do that regularly; however, in a game, we exist a world in which our actions can be given new meaning".

Players were more likely to forgive the other person crossing the boundary in the digital space when they were working together, rather than against each other. If the players were cooperating, not competing, they felt taking actions in another person's territory was more acceptable. A quote from an interviewed participant summarized this finding nicely: "... it depends in terms of what my intent it was, one of them was to steal points, the other was to be useful.” Here the participant explains that when the intent was to help, crossing boundaries felt more permissible.

Players playing together
The paper also demonstrated that there was a difference between digital and physical teaching methods. Digital reaching tools were considered less disruptive; however, if the other person physically reached or stepped over, encroaching on the physical space of another player, it was perceived as more of a violation. The paper emphasises the importance of considering both physical and digital gamespaces. Which lead to the discussion: "how do we design ‘behind the screen’ for behaviour carried out in front of the screen?".

In summary, Wehbe et al. contributes to design for games on these large, multitouch, shared displays. The paper features suggestions for leveraging the perception of space in the design. Moreover, the paper contributes to the current understanding of the ways people perceive boundaries in digital game spaces. These contributions will allow game and app designers to create better interactive experiences on large, multi-touch displays.

The full study, “Personal Space in Play: Physical and Digital Boundaries in Large-Display Cooperative and Competitive Games”, is published in the CHI 2020 proceedings.

Watch the video from Rina's UWHCI Mini CHI presentation

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Full citation and DOI:

Rina R. Wehbe, Terence Dickson, Anastasia Kuzminykh, Lennart E. Nacke, and Edward Lank. 2020. Personal Space in Play: Physical and Digital Boundaries in Large-Display Cooperative and Competitive Games. In Proceedings of the 2020 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’20). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 1–14. DOI:

Check out Rina's website and twitter (@rinarene), or contact her via email.

Other cited work:

Rina R. Wehbe, Edward Lank, and Lennart E. Nacke. 2017. Left Them 4 Dead: Perception of Humans versus Non-Player Character Teammates in Cooperative Gameplay. In Proceedings of the 2017 Conference on Designing Interactive Systems (DIS ’17). Association for Computing Machinery, New York, NY, USA, 403–415. DOI: