Marilyn Monroe and Relativity theory? There’s always a connection! But how…?

Since the earliest records, humans have wandered across endless lands and walked thorugh mysterious paths, in an attempt to uncover the unexplored and find better conditions for their tribes. The rise of agriculture and the industrial era has, however, changed things, turning us into bare sedentary animals… until now!

Wikispeedia is an easy and fun game: you are given two Wikipedia articles, and starting from the first article, your goal is to reach the second one exclusively by clicking links in the articles you encounter, effectively letting you explore your own paths across the vast Wikipedia network, for free! Your game data is collected by The EPFL Data Science Lab, which helps us and them better understand some aspects of human behaviour 😉.

Using this data, we ask ourselves, are there patterns in the way players navigate the network, that make them more successful? That is, is there any optimal strategy that doesn’t require extensive knowledge of the network?

Players are faced with multiple stimuli during the playing session, and players’ decisions as well as their subsequent success may be influenced by them. For example, users might navigate the network through semantic similarity optimization, or they might just click the links found in images or tables, etc.

Do these particular features have any effect on players’ success? Let’s find out!

Players as humans

Strategies and attitudes

Being the Wikispeedia game and individual and timed game, players responses to the challenge it serves are miscellaneous. Individuals may consciously come up with a strategy to tackle the task they are assigned to, or unintentionally manifest a behavior that could be observed by scrupulous data analysts, like us. The Wikispeedia game itself was designed to extrapolate information allowing the computation of semantic distance between real-world concepts, to be leveraged in intelligent applications. Less ambitiously, we’re interest in outlining players mutual attitudes and the likeliness these lead them to succeed in the game, potentially a causal relationship. Among the manifold performable strategies we hypothesised the following: - clicking on hyperlinks showing up at the top of the article page; - clicking on hyperlinks showing up in image captions; - clicking hyperlinks that are semantically related to the current article;
- clicking hyperlinks that are semantically related to the target article.

Look at the webpage below, isn’t your gaze naturally directed towards those velvet red petals? This is what we’re talking about.

Figure 1: An example article layout. Several elements pop to the eye like the images, do users click these more and, does this have an impact on their success?

As “the Parthenon’s facade” showing a marvellous “interpretation of golden rectangles in its proportions” is judged to be aesthetically valuable by humans ability to discriminate at a sensory level, it is also true that visual content attracts human attention more than raw text.

Additionally, picture yourself in a competitive framework, with a stopwatch in your left hand and your right trembling fingers on a mouse, determined to break down the shortest ever recorded Wikispeedia game and be remembered for eternity. Wouldn’t you click on top-positioned hyperlinks or would you parse the article in search for the best catch?

Figure 2: In a competitive framework, players have the additional stress of finishing the game fast; information in an easily diggestible format, like images, provide an easy and quick shortcut to progress.

Indeed, this is the case, at least for the majority of players.

(a) Players prefer clicking links in images.

(b) Players prefer clicking links close to the top of the page.

Figure 3: What parts of the page are users most attracted to?

The plot Figure 3 can be read as follows: the heights of the columns represent a measure of how trendy the target behavior is among players; the left-sided column, per behavior, is the distribution among unsuccessful players, while the right-sided is the one among successful players*.

It is evident that clicking hyperlinks showing up in image captions is a trendy behavior for Wikispeedia players, especially among the successful. The rate of successful players clicking on images’ captions is roughly 4 times the unsuccessful players one.

Again, it is evident that clicking on hyperlinks showing up at the top of an article is largely trendier than clicking on hyperlinks elsewhere positioned in the article text (4 to 5 times more common). The gap between successful and unsuccesful players is not that large to show a pattern.

However these are just distributions, i.e. a fair picture of reality, they show trends, no conclusions can be driven still.
*for a better understading of the graph (e.g. magnitudes of the column heights, units of measurements, etc.) see the notebook project_adalyzers.ipynb.

Semantic similarity: the paths that ‘make sense’.

A reasonable strategy players may employ is to click on hyperlinks that are semantically closer and closer, along the human path, to the target article. The yellow and green arrows visualize these weighted conncetions, a.k.a. distances evaluated with the semantic similarity metric.

Semantic similarity can be measured between neighbouring articles (yellow) or between the current article to the target article (green). The former is an unintuitive strategy as there is no guarantee that clicking articles with increasing semantic similarity to the previous article will help the player navigate to the target article. By constrast, the latter strategy follows common-sense, as navigating to articles that are increasingly similar to the target article should get you closer the target article.

“Semantic paths make sense, however, is this really the way the games are played? Is this actually effective w.r.t. success?”

Let us first validate whether measuring semantic similarity by comparing the frequency of word occurrences (bag-of-words cosine similarity) makes sense. Are all Wikispeedia articles just similar to each other (that would be problematic!)? Let’s look at the distribution of cosine similarities between all articles compared to its most similar article.

Figure 5: The bag-of-words cosine similarities show a reasonable distribution. The proposed metric would be problematic if the distribution has heavy density near 0 and/or 1. The former would mean that all articles are semantically very different to all other articles. The latter would mean that all articles are semantically very similar to all other articles. Finally, there is also no heavy density at a particular value which would suggest the that navigating articles with a semantic strategy is meaningless as all articles have the same similarity.

Great, it looks like the measure of semantic similarity makes sense! Let’s show a concrete example of the similarities!

Figure 6: The heatmap shows the cosine similarity between pairs of articles. Of course, on the diagonal, the similarties are all 1 as an article’s similarity to itself should be identical. The interesting values are around “Cygni” articles and time periods. “Cygni” are star systems/extrasolar planets so similarity in their corresponding Wikipedia articles should be expected. Similarly, time periods should also have some similarity, in agreement with the heatmap.

A look into the collected data…

What data do we have though? How hard are the tasks our brave users had to overcome? Let’s quickly explore this.

# take a look at the shortest_path distributions
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
import seaborn as sns
import pandas as pd

final_df = pd.read_csv('processed/final_df_curv_feats.csv')

fig, ax = plt.subplots(2,1, 
plt.rcParams["font.size"] = 12

            palette=["#b2df8a", "#1f78b4"])

ax[0].set_ylabel('Absolute Counts'); 
ax[0].set_xlabel('Shortest Path');
ax[0].set_title("1. Optimal lengths of the proposed games.")
#Count of human paths, stratified by shortest possible path")

ax[0].set_ylabel('Absolute Counts') 
ax[0].set_xlabel('Shortest Path')

            palette=["#b2df8a", "#1f78b4"])


ax[1].set_ylabel('Absolute Counts')
ax[1].set_xlabel('Human path length')
ax[1].set_title("2. Path lengths obtained by human players, when optimal length is 4.")
# Count of human path lengths, with shortest possible path = 3");


How are the data distributed among successful and unsuccessful games? We show: (top) The distributions of optimal lengths of the proposed games, and (bottom) The distributions of path lengths obtained by humans.

The graphs reveal some interesting features of the Wikispeedia hypertextual graph and the humans navigability network. The first plot shows the distribution of the shortest path distance of the tasks assigned to players.
The second plot shows the length of the actual paths taken by humans, on the subset with shortest path distance equal to 4. Given that the shortest path distance is taken as a proxy to game difficulty (see Section A matching study): - the distribution of the difficulty of games peaks at length equal to 3 and ranges from 2 to 5; - there exist hyperlinks which are not connected to any other; - as difficulty increases, the class unbalance decreases; - the distribution of successful human paths (with fixed shortest path distance == 4) spreads to a wide range of values, non monotously. - the distribution of unsuccessful paths (with fixed shortest path distance == 4) is severely skewed to the left and peaks at 3, meaning that in such paths, players give up before even having a chance to win.

More down-to-Earth: the distribution of optimal path lengths and the distribution of human path lengths are uneven and significantly vary for the populations of successful vs unsuccessful players.
These conclusions bring us to look for features of the games possibly affecting players performances (a.k.a. covariates), leading them to behave so inhomogeneously.

A closer look into the collected data: hunt for covariates

Graph-theoretical features

To characterize a path, we can describe each clicked link (i.e. each piece of the path, a.k.a. node of the graph), in the context of the Wikispeedia network. What do we mean by this? Consider the articles “United States of America” and “Bernard Hinault”, shown in Figure 7 below. The first one is one of most influential country on the world: intuitively it has a lot of other articles pointing to it, and also links to a lot other articles. The second is… well, less known. Way less known. Our friend here is, although one of the greatest cyclist in history, part of a very narrow context, in the context of the Wikispeedia network.

If we manage to reach “United States of America”, we have big chances of reaching any other article, as it’s well connected, while if we ever reach “Bernard Hinault”, the paths we take may be longer.

Figure 7: Curvature describes the context of the links that are clicked, within the network. If we click a link with a high curvature, we’re in a very well connected part of the network. Matching by this quantity ensures that users are exploring similar regions of the wikipedia network, and thus allows us to make fair comparisons.

To put this into numbers, we quantify the curvature of each edge (clickable link in an article) in the path. This quantifies the ammount of “flow potential” of a node (article). If an article has many ways in and many ways out, then its curvature is very negative, however if the ways in (or the ways out) are too few, we might have encountered a bottle neck, with a curvature closer to 0.

So, if the input node is i, and the output node is j, the curvature is calculated as follows:

\[\begin{align*} F(_\rightarrow e_\rightarrow) &= 2 - in(i) - out(j) \end{align*}\]

All the features listed make the Wikispeedia hypertextual graph clumpy and the addressed comparisons above unfair (we did it on purpose to show you that when your granny warned you not to judge people by their appearance, she was right!).

In statystical terms: these are observed covariates that we will leverage to remove the confounders that may affect the outcome of the logistic regression analysis we’re aiming at conducting in order to find a potential correlation between the strategies/attitudes performed by players and their success.

To state it more clearly, the shortest path distance between the source and target article in the Wikispeedia hyperlinks graph can be viewed as a measure of the “difficulty” of the randomly assigned task (source and target articles), affecting both the players’ successfulness and the strategy adopted to address it (a.k.a. confounder); this is a static feature. Furthermore, depending on the users’ choices, the task can become harder or easier as the game develops (dynamic feature): this trait can be captured by the, path dependent, features hyperlinks’ in- and out- degrees.

As we wish to compare only similar paths, these features will be exploited to restrict the inquiry on paths with a certain degree of “similarity” between themselves.

A matching study

The methodology chosen for the data processing step is to perform a matched analysis with the final objective to test if specific players’ game strategies lead to success in the Wikispeedia game. To this end a logistic regression is conducted with players’ success as the outcome and the following strategies as predictors:

  1. Positioning of the clicked hyperlinks;
  2. Clicking hyperlinks in image captions;
  3. Clicking articles with the following semantic similarity patterns:
    • increasing semantic similarity along the path between articles and the target article;
    • increasing semantic similarity along the path between two sequentially clicked articles.

In order to remove the aforementioned confounders, the dataset is filtered and the matching is performed accordingly with the assumptions made. Players are matched on same shortest path distance of the assigned task, and maximum propensity score. The propensity scores are obtained by calculating the predicted outcomes of a logistic regression with the outcome being the probability of treatment and the predictors being features of the human paths. The treated subject being the user performing a specific strategy (e.g. clicking more frequently than the average on hyperlinks showing up in images’ captions) and the controlled subject being the user NOT performing the strategy.

The players tested are now on the same starting point when choosing what strategy to adopt.

The analysis challenge can be reformulated as follows: “being assigned an equally difficult task and being equally free to perform a specific strategy, are players more successful if they adopt that specific strategy?”

Finally, the real deal, is there a programmatic way to win this game?

Table 1: Results from the matching study.
Strategy Coefficient p-value
increase target similarity 0.3317 0.0003
use bottom links -0.4803 0.0292
increse sequential similarity 0.1855 0.3358
use top links 0.3586 0.3586
use center-bottom links -0.1074 0.6042
use links in images -0.0161 0.8763

YES and NO

We tested 6 different possible strategies, and we found that 2 of them impact the players’ successfulness, namely clicking links in the bottom of the page, and clicking to increase similarity to target (the significant p-values allow to infer a difference in the outcome between differently behaving populations players, see Table 1 ). Instead it is not possible to evaluate if the strategies clicking links in image captions, clicking links in the top of the page, clicking links in the center-bottom of the page, clicking to increase similarity to next give players an edge in the game.

These results well picture reality!

It is not surprising that clicking hyperlinks in image captions doesn’t play a role in users’ success, still we proved they’re tempted to do it. Similarly for the attitude of clicking on hyperlinks located in peculiar positions of the article text. Unexpectedly, though, clicking links in the bottom of the webpage has a significantly negative effect on the outcome of the game. Even if we cannot justify this with common sense, we advise you NOT TO DO THIS 😭. Last but not least, clicking to increase similarity to target has proven to have a significantly positive impact on players’ success. We have good evidence that there’s no shortcut to success in this game: if you wanna win in Wikispeedia game, you will (un)fortunately have to think hard!

Well, Dear reader, we’ve come to an end, happy or not with this foolproof, witty human natural trait displayed, think hard and be successful: is there really no shortcut? We’ll need more research for that!