“Today’s video is very funny, guys,” says Tommy Ladd, 13, in a recent YouTube video. “I am on Fortnite Battle Royale right now, guys, and what I’m going to be doing is buying this massive bundle of 10,000 V-bucks,” the virtual in-game currency in Fortnite. He pauses for effect and laughs before adding, “—and I’m going to be doing it on my dad’s PayPal.”
Ladd makes the $100 purchase and peruses the Fortnite store for skins and add-ons. At this point, he says, his dad should have received a push notification on his smartphone for the PayPal purchase. Tommy’s father, Rob Ladd, eventually enters his son’s room holding his phone. Rob sternly asks his son what the charge is for. “That’s a hell of a lot of money,” says the dad. “What were you thinking?” Tommy responds: “It wasn’t me!” Rob mimes confiscating his son’s console before Tommy says, again laughing, “It’s a prank!” The video was a hit for Tommy’s channel, racking up 14,000 views.
Whenever I mention Fortnite to a parent whose kids game, one of the first things they bring up is how much money their child spends on Fortnite’s in-game purchases. Without getting scientific, the millions of kids who play this game aren’t all buying fresh skins and emotes on their own dime. A parent might enter their PayPal information into their kid’s Fortnite accounts and forget it’s saved. And anyway, the kids are buying “V-bucks,” not spending “cash,” which could feel less material. A cool new outfit in the game can cost 1,500 V-bucks, or about $15. Players want a lot of stuff, so sometimes bills for V-bucks verge on hundreds of dollars. Parents have taken to the internet to advise each other on how to avoid “an unexpected bill” from Fortnite publisher Epic Games.
Fortnite’s V-bucks have spurred uncomfortable confrontations between parents and children over money. And for some reason, it’s a confrontation that child YouTubers are replicating, sometimes for millions of clicks, for their fans. Witnessing this cringe-inducing genre of video grow over the last few months, I wonder whether viewers get an America’s Funniest Home Videos-type pleasure out of it. However, the these videos’ self-conscious branding and the YouTubers’ smug looks makes watching these parent-pranking Fortnite videos a complicated and very 2018 theatrical experience. Sometimes these videos are real. And sometimes they’re a joke everyone’s in on.
After stumbling upon Tommy Ladd’s video, titled “Kid Spends $100 on VBucks with Dad’s CREDIT CARD (Fortnite),” I went looking for other videos of its type. There are dozens. In nearly all of them, the young YouTubers refer to themselves as “kid,” not “I,” showing an awareness of the viral potential of a parent-kid V-buck dynamic. YouTuber Morgz, with a Jake Paul-esque side-swipe of blonde hair, made a video in March titled “Kid Spends $500 on FORTNITE with Mom’s Credit Card... [MUST WATCH].” In it, he says he’s going to prank his mom and “spend loads of money on Fortnite, buy all the items I can with my mom’s credit card and, hopefully, watch her freak out. This is gonna be hilarious.” Later on, when Morgz’ mom enters his room in a fury, she demands the money back. “Do you think this is funny?” she asks. “Yeah,” he nods. Smash that “Subscribe” button. The video has 9 million views.
One of the biggest parent-pranking Fortnite YouTubers is Dom Tracy, a young, often shirtless teen in braces. Over the past few months he’s made at least five videos of himself apparently purchasing Fortnite’s in-game currency with family members’ credit cards, all with tens of thousands of views. They follow a formula. First, he brags about what he’s going to do: spend x money with y authority figure’s card in exchange for sweet skins and lots of lols. After discovering his naughty Fortnite purchases, Tracy’s parents will enter his room, yell and slam the door. Or they might call him into another room for a stern conversation, all taped on camera by a mysterious cameraman.
In one, his dad calls a $100 V-bucks purchase “bullshit,” throws something at Tracy and says, “Funny joke? I don’t even have money for health insurance and you’re buying stuff.” It’s actually pretty depressing, if real. (Tracy did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Without direct input from these YouTubers, it’s hard to say whether the videos are staged. Over Skype, Tommy Ladd and his father—the only pair of seven I contacted who would agree to an interview—acknowledged that they’d set up their confrontation. Tommy admires behemoth YouTubers like KSI and Logan Paul and wants to get big on the video platform. After seeing these Fortnite prank videos all over YouTube, he “hopped in on the bandwagon.” Tommy’s dad encourages his YouTube ambitions, he told me. “It sounded like a bit of fun,” said the elder Ladd. “I tend to let Tommy do his own creative thing. I thought was entertainment, good and fun. Quite funny, really.”
Despite how it looks, Tommy said he’s never actually used his parents’ PayPal account. He has his own banking card, which his parents refresh with birthday and pocket money every now and then. When I asked Tommy how he felt about YouTubers whose Fortnite prank videos might not be staged, the 13-year-old said, “If he’s actually spending money and it’s affecting his dad, it’s not really funny at the end of the day.”