Wikipedia is the website that makes Encyclopedia Britannica shake in its leather-bound boots.

Its claim to fame - the fact that any user can edit it - has resulted in 3.3 million articles on everything from Paul (the psychic octopus who correctly predicted the outcome of every World Cup match involving Germany this year) to King Henry VIII's little brother Edmund.

But Wikipedia's mass of information isn't just for poorly researched term papers.

Grab a few friends, open your laptops, type in w-i-k (your browser will do the rest) and let the games begin.

The latest procrastination-tool-of-choice on college campuses is called "Wikiracing." And like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game - albeit modified for the Internet age - it challenges players to connect the dots.

The rules are simple: Pick a starting page - "Helen Keller," for example. Then pick a second target page, the more disparate, the better - "lucky bamboo," say - and see who can get from the first to the final page fastest, solely by clicking on links embedded within the pages.

It turns out, you can get from the deaf and blind author to the popular houseplant in six clicks: According to Keller's Wikipedia page, the Japanese were especially fond of Keller. The "Japanese people" page leads to the "Japan" page, which contains a reference to the oldest known Japanese folktale, "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter." And from there it's quick clicking to "bamboo" and finally "Dracaena sanderiana" - the "lucky" variety.

Winners are determined by the number of pages visited on the way to the final destination (fewest clicks wins), or players can race against the clock. Other variations require players to begin on different, randomly selected pages and race toward the "Jesus" page.

Priya Marathe, a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, said Wikiracing is "a sign of how addicted we are to the Internet, and how connected everything's become."

She and her friends played a slightly different version of Wikiracing: Instead of racing to a predetermined page, they clicked around the site to see "how bizarre of a page you could end up at."

Of course, for official rules and helpful strategies, you can always look at Wikipedia's Wikirace page and get even more distracted.

What the Wikiracing page does not do is offer clues about the game's origins. But there's a good chance it began like most other home-cooked game - out of sheer boredom.

As diversions go, Wikipedia is notorious for its time-sucking properties. Try to settle a dispute over who won the 1955 World Series (for the record, the Brooklyn Dodgers) and an hour later you'll be reading an article on Boston accents. Eventually, someone was bound to make it a sport.

Even the Kevin Bacon game - in which players try to link any one actor to Kevin Bacon - had its lightbulb moment in 1994 among three Albright College students. Trapped inside during a snowstorm, they watched Footloose and then The Air Up There, and began to speculate on how many movies Bacon had been in and the number of people he had worked with.

At least, that's the story according to Wikipedia.

The attraction to games like this may reflect a deeper interest in human connectivity, said S. Shyam Sundar, codirector of the Pennsylvania State University's Media Effects Research Laboratory.

"People have this inherent fascination with exploring networks," he said. "At some level it's a game, a challenge that involves some amount of skill. At the more basic level, it's how things are related to each other, how we are all connected."

Consider how people meet one another. When we ask where someone is from, we're not necessarily interested in their life story, Sundar says. Rather, we're trying to see if we're somehow connected to them.

And because Wikiracing only requires an Internet connection, and not the encyclopedic knowledge of American films that's required for Kevin Bacon, it might be the most democratized networking game yet - and one with an infinite number of possible connections.

That's the crux of Wikiracing's popularity: It can be as difficult or as easy as you make it. "Martin Luther King" to "Jesus"? Easy. (King was a Baptist minister.)

"I remember trying to get from 'Martin Luther King' to 'roller coaster,' " said Joe Giordano, a sophomore at Penn State who started playing the game in high school. To find what the civil-rights leader has in common with a popular amusement-park attraction is more challenging.

On Wikipedia itself, Wikiracers have updated the game's entry with suggestions for difficult target pages: "bread crumb" and "Hot Pockets" are supposedly among the hardest to reach, while "Super Bowl" is one of the easiest. And for racers who can't find a friend with whom to compete, wikispeedia.net lets you play on your own, providing random page combinations for visitors.

Wikispeedia founder and Munich native Bob West, 28, was working on a master's degree in computer science at McGill University in summer 2008 when he and his friends started Wikiracing.

At first, it was a simple diversion - until he realized that the game could provide insights into how people associate data, and he launched Wikispeedia that August to observe more closely how people played the game.

Eventually, he wrote his master's thesis on the data he collected from the website, where between 20,000 and 30,000 games have been played since its launch.

Wikiracing, he said, is a "game with a purpose" - a time-killing tool that also can provide research. In West's case, the data he gathered from Wikispeedia gives hints about how people associate words and concepts that could, for example, help improve technologies such as speech-recognition devices.

Not coincidentally, a good portion of the traffic on Wikispeedia comes from ISP addresses associated with educational institutions. Some even have used Wikiracing's popularity among the college set as a teaching tool.

David Greene, who's now the assistant director for student life at the Community College of Philadelphia, said he used Wikiracing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City as part of a program that taught incoming freshmen how to conduct research for papers.

"Search games" like Wikracing, he said, were a fun way to show students how much misinformation is out there - and how easily that information can be altered. In other words, don't trust everything you read online.

But for Giordano, Wikiracing is just another way to fight school-day tedium.

"Really, I think it was just something fun to do in the computer lab when the teacher wasn't there," he said.

Contact staff writer Aubrey Whelan at 215-854-4193 or awhelan@phillynews.com.