What the United States Census Taught Me About Making a Task Unique

Even the most mundane of things can form the basis of an exciting story, and the United States Census is no exception. Now, granted, a once-in-ten-years, country-wide government project is unusual in its own right. But new employees on the way in know that on the whole, a lister’s job is to walk the streets, entering addresses into a little database. Doesn’t sound too interesting, right?

That’s what I thought, too. And then I got to the first day of training as a Census Lister, and I found the reasons why it’s really hard to think of it as “just on-foot in-field data entry”, or even an entry-level job.

A lot of it comes from the secrecy. When I first arrived, the first thing they did was slap an “authorized visitor” sticker on me and inform me that until I was sworn in, I couldn’t even go to the bathroom without an escort. By the end of the first day, we had all been full-hand-fingerprinted. Then there was the legally binding oath of secrecy, which brought up a feeling halfway between “just fell into a conspiracy movie” and “kid forming secret club in treehouse”. Imagine not just being given a quest, but being sworn up, down and sideways that you’ll never, ever talk about it. Doesn’t it make it that more interesting than yet another ‘go here, do this’?

Then there’s the right (or rather, requirement) to confidentiality. Now, this comes from the fact that the job of the Census is to count everyone. And that means everyone, from standard middle-class families to inmates in prisons—right down to groups like undocumented workers or homeless in places where they’re not supposed to be. If someone thinks being counted is going to get him in trouble, he’s going to avoid being counted, and that throws all the numbers off. Enter Title 13, which is basically a law that what’s learned in the Census stays in the Census. At least, for 72 years. Now, most listers aren’t going to be quite as concerned with that as with the end result of that: namely, that a Census lister is forbidden to answer questions about information she’s picked up, unless the person asking is one of her superiors. And that means to everyone. It’s a pretty heady feeling. Similar privileges can make a job in a game or story seem more important—being able to refuse to answer questions from certain people, go places others wouldn’t be able to go (even if it’s part of the job anyway), have first shot at a later reward. Things like that.

The image is further reinforced by the equipment. Normal computers take a password. Census HHCs, on the other hand, require a fingerprint and a security question, making beginning a day’s work feel like something out of a James Bond movie. While fingerprinting isn’t always an option in other worlds, you can get the same effect with any other sort of individualized recognition mechanic—any time you’re handed one of those things, it’s got to be important, right?

There’s also the slight element of risk. Now, in most neighborhoods, being from the Census isn’t anything to worry about; if anything, it’s a reason why you’re walking around knocking on doors and occasionally looking behind houses to see where the blasted Street Number and a Half got off to on this property. But sometimes you hear about it being a little more risky. One of the Census veterans in my training group had a story about a run-in involving a naked man with a gun, and another about a place they had to canvass by helicopter because it wasn’t safe to go in on foot. My crew leader’s other field training group had their own misadventure with a man on the next block over wielding a garden hose. For a cautious character, hearing about the problems other people ran into can add a feeling of risk to an otherwise harmless-seeming mission without actually having to make it riskier.

So if you’re writing or running a mission that seems like it shouldn’t be much, but you want to make it interesting, think about the Census; any of these tips could jazz up even the most boring of tasks.

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