The Breadth-First-Search Algorithm

I remember when I was younger I used to play the game of hide-and-seek a lot. This is a game where a group of people (at least two) separate into a group of hiders and a group of seekers. The most common version of this that I’ve seen is having one person as the seeker and everyone as hiders. Initially, the seeker(s) is given a number to count towards and close their eyes while counting. The hiders then search for places to hide from the seeker. Once the seeker is finished counting, their job is to find where everyone is hiding or admitting that they cannot find all the seekers. Any seekers not found are said to have won, and seekers that are found are said to have lost.

I played this game a number of times in my childhood, but I remember playing it with a friend named Brenda in particular. Brenda had a certain way she played as seeker. While many of us would simply go to places we deemed as “likely” hiding spots in a somewhat random order, Brenda would always take a survey of the room, and no matter where she began searching, she would always make note of the locations close to her starting point and make sure she was able to give them all a look before she looked at locations that were close to the points she deemed close to the starting point. She continued this process until she either found everybody or concluded that she had searched every spot she could think of and gave up.

It wasn’t until years later that I was able to note the similarity between Brenda’s way of playing hide-and-seek and the Breadth-First-Search algorithm. The Breadth-First-Search algorithm is a way of exploring all the nodes in a graph. Similarly to hide-and-seek, one could choose to do this in a number of different ways. Breadth-First-Search does this by beginning at some node, looking first at each of the neighbors of the starting node, then looking at each of the neighbors of the neighbors of the starting node, continuing this process until there are no remaining nodes to visit. Initially all nodes are “unmarked” and the algorithm proceeds by marking nodes as being in one of three stages: visited nodes are marked as “visited”; nodes that we’ve marked to visit, but have not visited yet are marked “to-visit”; and unmakred nodes that have not been marked are “unvisited”.

Consider a bedroom with the following possible hiding locations: (1) Under Bed, (2) Behind Cabinet, (3) In Closet, (4) Under Clothes, (5) Behind Curtains, (6) Behind Bookshelf, and (7) Under Desk. We can visualize how the bedroom is arranged as a graph and then use a Breadth First Search algorithm to show how Brenda would search the room. Consider the following bedroom arrangement, where we have replaced the names of each item by the number corresponding to that item. Node (0) corresponds to the door, which is where Brenda stands and counts while others hide.

Bedroom Items as a Graph

Now consider how a Breadth First Search would be run on this graph.

Bedroom Items as a Graph

The colors correspond to the order in which nodes are visited in Breadth-First-Search.

The way we read this is that initially Brenda would start at node 0, which is colored in Blue.
While Brenda is at node 0, she notices that nodes 1, 5, and 6 (under bed, behind curtains, and behind bookshelf) are the nearby and have not been checked yet so she places them on the “to visit” list.
Next, Brenda will begin to visit each node on the “to visit” list, and when a node is visited, she labels it as visited. At each location, she also takes note of the other locations she can reach from this location. Below is the order of nodes Brenda visits and how she discovers new locations to visit.

Order VisitedNodeQueueAdding Distance From Node 0
101, 5, 60
215, 62, 41
356, 2, 41
462, 43, 71
524, 3, 72
643, 72

Here is a link to my Examples page that implements the Breadth-First-Search Algorithm on Arbitrary Graphs.

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