The Art of WikiracingReading Time: 4 minutes
The Wikipedia Fanatics Racing to Get From ‘Stroopwafel’ to ‘Jimmy Wales’ in Just a Few Clicks, Getting from one random Wikipedia entry to another in the fewest possible clicks., The art of Wikiracing.
Welcome to Source Notes, a Future Tense column about the internet’s information ecosystem.
The final round required navigating from the Wikipedia article on ‘Stroopwafel’ to the page about ‘Jimmy Wales,’ Wikipedia’s co-founder—a tough leap for even the most seasoned Wikiracers. As the challenge appeared on their screens, the contestants leaned into their laptops and tried to quickly strategize their path across the internet encyclopedia. Whoever made it to ‘Jimmy Wales’ from ‘Stroopwafel’ with the fewest clicks would be crowned champion.
Wikiracing has long been viewed as a quirky, low-stakes pastime for friendly nerds—a world away from the high-pressure environment of competitive Scrabble or speedcubing. But while those other ‘geek sports’ have already established their own versions of a Super Bowl, Wikiracing has traditionally remained confined to college dorm rooms and high school computer labs.
Not anymore. Wikiracing was a featured event at this year’s Wikimania, the global conference for dedicated Wikipedia editors, which took place this past August in Singapore. ‘People took Wikimania 2023’s Wikiracing very seriously, and the level of competition was incredibly high,’ said Zack McCune, director of brand at the Wikimedia Foundation. ‘We had F1 Grand Prix energy in the room.’
Although there are several variations of the game, the basic premise is that players start with one Wikipedia article and then try to reach a target article using the fewest possible links. This year’s players used the platform TheWikiGame.com to conduct game play and were allowed to submit as many solutions as possible within a two-minute period.
Kevin Payravi, a 28-year-old software engineer from Frisco, Texas, emerged as this year’s champion, and proudly posted a photo of his first-place trophy with the caption ‘I’ve been training my whole life for this moment.’ According to Payravi, his training began sometime in middle school. He made his first Wikipedia edit in 2007 at age 12, when he registered his user account, SuperHamster (he admits he’d choose a different name now). ‘We’d be in study hall in the library at school, and we’d play Wikiracing on the school computers,’ Payravi said. ‘Since usually the school would block gaming websites, Wikiracing was kind of a way around that because we could always access Wikipedia.’
When he’s racing, Payravi tends to look out for geographical links—navigating from ‘Stroopwafel’ to ‘South Holland,’ for example—because place articles usually open up new paths. He also considers Wikipedia’s Manual of Style for linking, which lets him anticipate the probability that a word or phrase is likely to be linked versus ordinary text.
I have fond memories from my college days of Wikiracing with my friends in the computer lab, where we’d sometimes attempt to be the first to get to ‘Philosophy’ in six clicks or fewer. On a whim, I tried again this afternoon, starting with the randomly generated article ‘Gyöngyösmellék,’ clicking ‘Hungary,’ then ‘Roman Empire,’ then ‘Philosophy.’ Three clicks—piece of cake! But, according to Wikipedia researchers, it’s not just skill: Clicking the first link of any English Wikipedia article and repeating the process leads to ‘Philosophy’ about 97 percent of the time. Although we might need more philosophy in public discourse, the subject is literally permeating all of Wikipedia.
For the uninitiated, it might be hard to grasp why Wikiracing is so enjoyable, so I asked the top talent to explain their theories. ‘I think it’s just exciting to see that almost everything in the world is related,’ said Annie Rauwerda, the founder of the popular Depths of Wikipedia social media accounts and this year’s third-place winner. The world is so big, human knowledge is so vast, it’s all so overwhelmingly beyond what humans are capable of understanding and yet … it’s all so related. The world of human knowledge (as summarized on Wikipedia) is more connected than we think, and Wikiracing reflects that.
There’s also the personal thrill of the chase. ‘Everyone likes going to Wikipedia, reading an article and clicking on interesting links and going down that rabbit hole,’ said Payravi, this year’s champion. ‘This kind of plays off that, trying to click links and find an interesting path.’
Effective Wikiracing rewards lateral thinking—connecting subjects without an obvious relation—while concentrating on a predetermined target. But notice how the same behaviors that help people sprint across Wikipedia in record time can seem less virtuous in other contexts. After all, conspiracy theorists use ‘lateral thinking’ to connect unrelated events and string together false narratives that range from silly (Lea Michele was a child actress, she preferred not to improvise on Glee, therefore Lea Michele can’t read) to dangerous (pharmaceutical companies made money from vaccines, therefore Big Pharma ‘planned’ the pandemic).
Those connections may be false, but people seem to really enjoy making them. Neuroscience suggests that dopamine plays a bigger role in wanting a reward than in actually receiving it, which might explain why the human brain prefers to hunt for information instead of having it delivered conveniently without pursuit. The people chanting ‘Do your own research!‘ seem to have very fond memories of their personal search process, finding their own interesting pathways across the net.
Fortunately, Wikiracing is more wholesome than all of that. And even though it has its own Wikipedia page, I think it could use a bit more publicity. Other Wikipedians agree: ‘I was surprised that in 2023, some prolific Wikimedia contributors did not know the thrill of a Wikirace!’ said Rauwerda, the Depths of Wikipedia creator. ‘Not everyone there had spent high school lunch breaks speedrunning the encyclopedia like I did.’
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