Vanellope and Ralph Have ARMS — Do You?

by Guest Writer

This guest post about “gamifying” employee engagement is by Anne Meixner, Ph.D. Thanks, Anne!

As I busted my gut with huge belly laughs in the movie theater, I recognized that the story told in the movie Ralph Breaks the Internet reflects the key attributes of engagement at work: ARMS.

Scott Crabtree’s e-book, Level-Up Your Leadership, shares how managers can increase their team members’ engagement. Based on the science of happiness, Scott points out that the following strategies create a work environment that results in happier (and therefore more productive) employees:

  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Mastery
  • Surprise

How does each concept of ARMS relate to the movie? Read on!

***Warning: If you haven’t watched the movie yet, expect some spoilers ahead.***

The Background

Although one of the movie’s main characters, Vanellope, enjoys racing, the Sugar Rush racecourse has become predictable and she has outgrown it. As a driver, she has mastered it and needs to master something new. Her best friend, Ralph, surprises her by building new features. It’s exciting—yet it breaks the game console. And so begins their great new adventure.


When Vanellope and Ralph get to the world of the Internet to find the replacement game part that they need, all sorts of choices exist. They decide to take matters into their own hands and obtain the money to buy a new steering wheel. Together, they steal a car from another video game called Slaughter Race.

With Ralph’s help to create a distraction, Vanellope jumps into the car, and the chase is on! She’s thrilled about not only making progress toward their goal, but by getting to try a new racecourse that presents her with more choices.

Predictability equals no choices, which leads to boredom. When a job has become routine (like the Sugar Rush racecourse), people may become dissatisfied and even resentful. Choice forms the basis of autonomy, whether it’s buy-in to a project or having a few options of how to do a task. Providing choices in how and when to do work leads to a higher level of engagement. It can even lead to improved heart health (check out page 5 in Level-Up Your Leadership).

(On another note about choice and autonomy, Vanellope and Ralph experience a lot of stress when they visit KnowsMore the Search Engine. As he valiantly tries to anticipate their search query, he irritates them and provides too many options. Yet cognitive science has demonstrated that too many choices create more—not less—stress. In order to avoid analysis paralysis, it works best if the number of options to choose from is limited to 3.)


In the film, Ralph and Vanellope chat over root beer every day after work. Part of the basis of their friendship is helping each other achieve their goals. When Ralph surprises Vanellope with new game features, it’s a testament to how much he cares about her and wants to boost her satisfaction. When the game console breaks, they stick together as they explore the Internet, master the basics of e-commerce—and even befriend new people.

Ralph and Vanellope already have relatedness, a key aspect of engagement at work—and they gain even more as they explore the Internet, just like teammates working on a new project. Esprit de corps occurs when everyone on the team learns together and helps each other. It makes going to work fun and satisfying.


In the Sugar Rush Game, Vanellope knows the course inside and out and finds there’s no more room to grow. In contrast, the Slaughter Race track provides a more ambitious race setting: city streets with tunnels, ramps, and alleys. The challenge of mastering a new racecourse brings her joy; she states, “I feel more alive.”

Similarly, Ralph develops a whole new skill: creating a viral video. With the help of Yesss on BuzzzTube, Ralph makes himself look ridiculous as a leaf-blower guy and goes on to master every viral video template. He becomes a 4-hour sensation, earning “hearts” that lead to advertising dollars.

At work, a team member can benefit from mastery by either taking on more challenging projects or by learning something totally new. The opportunity to pursue mastery is a key driver of engagement.


Unexpected challenges and prizes are sprinkled throughout Ralph Breaks the Internet. It all begins with Ralph’s surprise for Vanellope: she squeals with delight when she sees his homemade sign pointing in a new direction. Pop-up ads on the internet also promise a surprise—and lure Ralph to click and see what he may get.

In Level-Up Your Leadership, Scott points out that the surprises in games provide players with a dopamine boost. Frequent—yet unpredictable—use of surprises maintains engagement. In a work environment, pleasantly surprising your colleagues fosters interest and even loyalty.

A video game, a story within a story, and ARMS

I found it amusing that a story about video game characters reflects all the ARMS attributes. Naturally, this comes as no surprise to Scott Crabtree. As a former video game developer, Scott knows that to engage players you provide Autonomy, Relatedness, Mastery—and throw in the occasional Surprise.

The science of happiness described in Level-Up Your Leadership explains why this works. Try applying these concepts in your own workplace! If you’re a manager, recognize that providing ARMS creates more engaged employees. If you’re being managed, recognize when you’re not getting ARMS—and work with your manager to become a more engaged employee.

Brief Bio

Stories provide a powerful means to learn and teach others. To promote the craft of engineering I collect and curate engineering stories with a team of freelancers (

I am an engineer who enjoys solving problems, reading books—fiction or non-fiction—and watching movies. As a ski instructor, I regularly use the concepts of mastery, relatedness, and autonomy when coaching clients to new ability levels. I apply this same mindset when I train and coach engineers to grow themselves along the technical career path (Anne Meixner on LinkedIn).

[Disclaimer: I have never worked for The Walt Disney Company, nor has any family member worked for Disney. I have just enjoyed their movies throughout my life.]

Can you think of other examples of ARMS & gamification? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!