Buying a Virtual Plow with Points

Sailing the Caribbean...skiing the Alps ... sampling Napa's finest - That's how one might imagine American Express cardholders redeeming their precious "reward points." Painting a more modest customer profile, however, AmEx recently added online gaming points to its rewards menu.

For the program, AmEx teamed up with top game maker Zynga, which, for a limited time, agreed to accept "membership rewards" in exchange for limited-edition virtual goods - as well as physical and virtual game cards - for games like "FarmVille" and "Mafia Wars."

For 435 rewards points, for example, AmEx cardholders could buy a "manx cat" on FarmVille, while 1,000 points got them a $10 gift card good at retailers like Gap and Old Navy, and 1,945 points was good for a Café World Amex Lightning Stove.

Apparently taking pride in the partnership, AmEx claimed to be the first financial services provider to offer reward redemptions for virtual games.

Not only did it represent a whole new "redemption category" for AmEx, but the deal reflected the company's "ongoing commitment to expanding and deepening the value we offer customers online," says Dan Schulman, group president of Enterprise Growth at AmEx. ("Virtual value," we think is what Schulman meant to say.)

What's more, the interest that AmEx showed in the deal demonstrates just how popular online social games have become.

Zynga boasts over 198 million monthly active users on Facebook, according to market research group AppData, while the game maker has recently sought to expand its reach beyond the top social network.

Even more remarkable, Zynga's estimated worth recently surpassed Electronic Arts's stock-market value. According to SharesPost - an exchange for shares of privately held companies - the game maker was valued at $5.51 billion in late October. At the time, Electronic Arts, the second-largest game publisher by sales, was worth $5.16 billion on the NASDAQ Stock Market.

Still, popularity doesn't always translate to prestige - a concept we always assumed was core to the AmEx brand.

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