Note: Garry Shirts sent out a request for facilitators for BaFa’ BaFa’ to the NASAGA (North American Simulation and Games Association) news list. In reponse to that request one of the NASAGA members asked, “What is BaFa’ BaFa’?” This is Barbara Steinwachs’ answer. Reprinted by permission of Barbara Steinwachs.

In response to designer Garry Shirts’ request for Northwest facilitators for BaFa’ BaFa’, someone asks “What is BaFa’ BaFa’?”

First designed in the mid 1970’s and recently revised, this is one of Garry Shirts’ (also the designer of the classic StarPower, which explores power relationships among haves and have-nots) most used and wonderful simulation games. Originally developed for the Navy, for cross-cultural misunderstandings faced by young sailors (Sandy Fowler was on the original research team), BaFa’ BaFa’ immediately became a generic game for use in many multicultural settings: international cross-cultural situations, domestic “diversity” issues, teacher-student, doctor-patient, & any setting where two groups of different “cultures” engage with one another.

It sets up two hypothetical cultures, Alpha & Beta, in two different rooms. The cultures are carefully constructed to be different from one another but with basics which can be misinterpreted if you come from the opposite culture– e.g. leadership, currency, activities, etc. In a very simple format, participants visit the other culture in small groups for a few minutes each. After each visit, each culture briefly discusses what happened and what was learned during the visit. When everyone has visited, the game is over. A splendidly designed debriefing guides players to explore their interpretations (mostly misinterpretations because they were made based only on the home culture experience of the one interpreting) and compare them to what actually was going on, and why.

Even though the visit was short, analogous to first encounters with a new culture, the insights are many and rich. The game takes 2 and 1/2 to 3 hours, and requires 2 facilitators, and 2 rooms (although the second room can be very small-a large closet, or a hallway). It works grandly, in a non-threatening manner, for any number from 16 up. 20-40 or so is ideal; larger numbers work fine, but do require careful logistical preparation. It uses artifacts which require some time to assemble for the first run, and about an hour for successive runs.

If you have the time & enough players, this is the cross-cultural game of choice, bar none. I have run it dozens of times, often with Sandy Fowler, for such groups as teacher training days, the Foreign Service Institute for persons about to go abroad, university international centers, teenage retreats, persons form other countries coming into the US, race relations retreats, MBA orientations, etc.

When the time is short or there are few players, I choose instead to run Thiagi’s BARNGA, also a fun and non-threatening experience which can yield a rich debriefing . . . but given enough time & players I choose BaFa’ BaFa’ because its more complex fabric and rich internal discussions (after the visits) make it a reservoir of insights and understandings.

I would be happy to chat further about this game and specific uses with anyone who wishes.

BaFa’ BaFa’ is available from its designer, R. Garry (2 r’s) Shirts, through his company, Simulation Training Systems: As you probably can tell, I love this game. Each run is different and magical and loads of fun. The insights that unfold during play often are thrilling &/or hilarious.

—Barbara Steinwachs (