Bytes for A Cause: A Chat with the Cookie Brigade at Penny Arcade Expo
This past weekend at Penny Arcade Expo East in Boston, we sat down with Michele Marabella of Cookie Brigade, the well loved, unofficial-PAX tradition. If you’re not familiar with PAX, Penny Arcade Expo is Penny Arcade’s renowned series of gaming festivals taking place annually in Seattle, Boston, Melbourne and San Antonio since 2004. And if you’ve ever been to one and received a cookie from a cheery person with a basket full of baked goods, you’ve likely encountered a member of the Cookie Brigade.
The Cookie Brigade is a community within PAX that started in 2007 as a way to raise money for Child’s Play, a game industry charity dedicated to improving the lives of children by providing them with toys and games across 100+ hospitals worldwide. Prior to each PAX festival, brigaders all over the world like Michele make huge volumes of treats, often fandom themed, and mail them into the festival city or distribute the goods themselves to attendees. All they ask in return is an optional donation to Child’s Play–and so far they have raised $250,190!
The only thing we love more than pop culture and food is a good cause, and so we were very lucky to steal Michele away from her busy day of brigading to learn more. We chatted about the origins of the Cookie Brigade, discussed their impressive operations, and took photos of some of their seriously cool fandom-themed treats. Be sure to support the Cookie Brigade by donating to Child’s Play or by learning how you can volunteer.
A Chat with the Cookie Brigade
Q: How did Cookie Brigade get its start?
A: Basically it started with two people in 2007 who went to PAX Prime with cookies because, well, who doesn’t like cookies? They started giving them out to random people and there were some people who were like, “I can’t just take this cookie. I need to give you money for this!” And they were like, “Well, no, it’s just a free cookie!” So from there any money they received they donated directly to Child’s Play.
Child’s Play has been around since 2003, during a time period where the media had a very negative view of gaming. Between Columbine and Grand Theft Auto, people were blaming video games for promoting gun violence and the media was trying to portray video gamers as horrible people. So the guys who run Penny Arcade actually said, “Okay! Let’s put our money where our mouth is,” and started donating game consoles and tabletop games to the children’s wings of hospitals.
Now hospitals can create wish lists and receive donated consoles, games, toys, books and other gifts so that hospitals can gift these presents to children who may be stuck in hospitals on their birthdays or other holidays so that their families do not have to worry about purchasing those items. It’s just one less thing for these families to have to worry about.
Q: I’m so happy that out of that very rough period of gaming that there was some positivity and I’m sure anyone here can tell you that that perception of gamers has certainly changed. How did Cookie Brigade help enact positive change out the get-go with its message?
A: The founders of Cookie Brigade were incredibly generous. We’ve never charged anyone for anything we’ve given out. In the same spirit of those first two people who believed that everyone deserves a treat, we still don’t charge for our goods. It’s not unusual to hear about people in the Cookie Brigade randomly receiving a $100 bill in exchange for no cookies because Child’s Play is just such a great cause.
Q: So you’d say that the gaming community responded immediately to the Cookie Brigade concept?
A: The Cookie Brigade has been around since 2007 so it’s been about 10 years now and we do operate a bit under the radar so there are still people at PAX who don’t know who we are while there are other people who immediately recognize us as the Cookie Brigade. But regardless, Child’s Play is a great well known cause so people are happy to support once they’re educated about it.
Q: So the Cookie Brigade is kind of this recurring thing that you hear about and then you experience and then you look forward to and tell all of your friends about?
A: Exactly. My first experience with the Cookie Brigade happened when I was waiting for one of the concerts at PAX a few years ago and somebody came by and dropped a cookie in my lap and I was like, “What!?” Then slowly you learn more about the Cookie Brigade and you’re like, “This is amazing!”
Q: How many Cookie Brigaders would you say there are today?
A: It’s a highly variable number because you’ll have some people who get involved only in their city while there are people who will have attended the last 6 PAXs in a row and even attended PAX in Australia. Some people will not attend in person but send cookies in the mail. We have about 150 people involved roughly.
Q: That is a serious brigade. I noticed that the packages you brought over have very organized ingredient labels, QR codes and sometimes even the social media handles of their creators. How did these labels evolve over the years?
A: Since all of these goods are baked at home by home bakers, we try to accommodate for dietary restrictions, allergies, etc. But any time someone has concern over an item, I tell them that we try our best but if there’s a possibility of cross contamination, we’d rather you not have the cookie and instead have a great, healthy time at PAX!
Q: It’s super impressive. These labels must take a ton of work. You guys are so positive and on top of it! How does the Brigade stay organized?
A: We have some really dedicated people. Everyone is here because they want to be here and have fun with it and if they stop having fun with it, then they might just skip a year.
Q: So besides interacting with you guys at PAX, is there any way that someone at home can support the Cookie Brigade?
A: There are a lot of different ways for someone to get involved. We’ll have people who will just bake and some people who will just distribute. Sometimes we’ll have people who just want to handle administrative tasks. We also work some non-PAX events so sometimes people will help out with those.
Some PAX locations have food contracts with other vendors that prevent outside food or beverage from being sold onsite, which is why Cookie Brigade doesn’t have a table here today in Boston. Otherwise, Cookie Brigade has more of a presence at PAX such as with DesertBus and at other events such as the Festival of Indie games in Cambridge.
Love the Cookie Brigade or PAX? Tag your awesome cookie pictures with #PateSmith or share them in the comments for the chance to be featured onsite! Be sure to also donate to Child’s Play via Cookie Brigade or learn how to volunteer.