Teen-oriented virtual world Zwinky has expanded its e-commerce operations so that members can use real-world cash to pay for virtual goods. Starting Monday, credit cards and PayPal accounts can be used to purchase the in-game "ZBucks" currency, which members could heretofore only earn by visiting certain in-world locations and winning games. The cash will then go on new "ZCard" shopping cards which members will be able to use at the in-world retail hub, the--wait for it--Zwinchester Mall, which contains stores like the Z-Loft trendy furniture outlet and "Like Dat," a boutique branded with the identity of the rapper 50 Cent.
For an idea of the exchange rate, 5,000 "ZBucks" will cost you $19.99.
Real-to-virtual economies are not uncommon in virtual worlds like Eve Online and Second Life. But Zwinky, which is owned by InterActiveCorp (IAC) and has a head count of more than 9 million members (that's accounts, not active users) who have already assembled more than 10 million virtual outfits through trips to the in-world mall, has not actually created a currency exchange--it does not appear that there are any plans to allow members to switch ZBucks back into real dollars. In that respect it's more like the Disney-owned kiddie space Club Penguin, but considering Zwinky's older youth demographic, it'll more likely be the teens than the parents who are doing the buying.
I'm guessing that reactions to the "ZCard" will either go in one of two directions--it'll ultimately be held up as a smart strategy to help young people learn about being economical, or as yet another factor in the material corruption of digital-age youth. Which one, I'm still not sure.