Shadowrun is a multi-genre franchise of tabletop RPGs, novels, and video games set in a science fantasy cyberpunk world. One of the key aspects is "decking", where a skilled hacker can basically jack into the Matrix, then engage in combat with AI avatars (something like the computer programs of Tron) guarding sensitive data repositories and such.

However, we always see decking from the perspective of shadowrunners attempting to illegally access this information. This makes it look like decking has one purpose: to be an overcomeable obstacle for someone trying to steal data. What are the legitimiate uses of decking? Why would someone bother to walk around cyberspace to access data when they could just use a computer in real space?

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    Porn, obviously :-/ – Paul Johnson Aug 2 '17 at 21:34

The short answer to your question is: There are no legitimate uses for decking. Just about everybody who's not a tech-hating luddite uses the Matrix for daily activity. Some access it in full sensory virtual reality, others via augmented reality overlays, but none of them are decking.

The precise game mechanics and the in-world technology description has changed over the years and editions, but the key factor is not all virtual reality Matrix access is decking.

What is virtual reality?

Using a virtual reality interface in Shadowrun is not like the modern definition of virtual reality. There's no walking around, there are no clumsy handheld interfaces, there are no heavy goggles - there's no physical interaction at all. Cyberterminals include a component whose entire purpose is to stop your meatsack from reacting to the things that happen in the Matrix.

Shadowrun's version is a direct neural interface, interfacing your brain with the data. While some systems have a programmed metaphor to make it look and feel like you're walking around or reading books, or searching a library, that's just sculpting (and Matrix sculpters make big money). In virtual reality, you think what you want and your cyberterminal does the work - assuming you have the access privileges and software rights to do it.

What is a cyberdeck?

I think the distinction is best made with how things existed in the first fifteen years of the setting - the early 2050s through the mid-2060s. In that time (representing the first three editions of the game system), people used a cyberterminal to access the Matrix. There were two essential components used to "create" a person's virtual avatar, their persona, a Bod chip and a Sensor chip. The first managed the virtual-physical aspects of the avatar, and the second managed the computer-to-human translation, how well the avatar could "see". There were other hardware and software components involved, too, but for the purposes of the question, these are the important ones.

Security counter-deckers, known as spiders in later years, had an additional component - an Evasion chip. A civilian-legal cyberterminal didn't even have a socket for the chip. Evasion allowed spiders a defense against invasive code used by deckers - they could dodge, to use the closest meatspace analogy. Legal, civilian Matrix users lacked this particular piece of hardware, and were wide open to attack by hostile deckers.

The real magic, the feature that turned a device from a cyberterminal into a cyberdeck was the fourth and final persona chip - Masking. The masking chip allowed the user to actually hide his activity from the spiders. Without it, a person attempting something illicit was little more than a thug breaking into a convenience store in full view of the cameras while leaving a business card behind. With a good masking chip, he was the virtual equivalent of James Bond (minus the explosions).

  • I appreciate you defining terms and clarifying that “decking” is basically hacking; the illegal use of VR with your identity hidden. Regarding sculpting, is that something legitimate users and deckers would see differently? I’m thinking of Shadowrun Returns mostly where Matrix access is walking around fighting ICE, but that doesn’t make sense for legitimate uses. Although it could just be a gameplay concession. – Thunderforge Oct 24 '17 at 19:01
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    @Thunderforge Absolutely a game concession. In the RPG, sculpting makes a host pretty - the Renraku Arcology's host looks like a Japanese pagoda with koi ponds and samurai guards, Lone Star's host could look like an old west town with wanted posters and a sheriff's office, etc. It's all an overlay over the UMS (universal matrix specifications), which is more like what you see in the video games. There's actually an optional deck module called a "reality filter" that allows a user to impose their own sculpting on a system, for performance improvement (things always look how the user "expects"). – T.J.L. Oct 24 '17 at 19:21

As documented in the Shadowrun novels such as Never Deal with a Dragon, the virtual reality access methods used in Decking were standard for corporations, as Sam has a (very basic) Avatar for use at Renraku.

As for why, that's never really expounded upon, but some real-life companies use VR interfaces because it can work in an intuitive way by allowing users to better use their spatial sense to categorize and manipulate things.

  • Ah, I get it now. I didn't notice the redirect was happening. :-D – FuzzyBoots Feb 10 '20 at 23:11

The basic idea of VR in Shadowrun is not that it allows cyercombat, but that it is a more effective way of working. Working via direct neural links allows you to get work, especially information-related, done a lot faster than using older hardware (like keyboards and 2D screens). This is also reflected in newer editions, where for example matrix searches can be done much faster when plugged in completely.

In other words, computers and keyboards are slooooowwwwwww. When you start typing your first commands, the guy who is plugged in directly is probably already halfway done with the work, thus making your job obsolete. Get a jack or look for another kind of work.

Of course, this means, "hacking" is also more effective and this is how it was established, but it's not the only way to use VR. Of course, non-hacking hardware is a lot different from hacking decks and in the beginning (2050), a typical wage slave wouldn't even have a deck but only a massive terminal that wasn't transportable at all. And if the employee in question wasn't part of security, their terminal would lack features essential for cybercombat and hacking.

What we should not forget is that "VR" in Shadowrun is more than simulating physical movement inside a computer. So, when you, for example, look for data, you do not actually have to "go" somewhere and "open" a book and then "read" the whole book. Your brain is connected directly to the computer and while the action might be sculpted to look like "going" or "reading", it has nothing to do with those physical actions. Instead it's an almost direct command from your brain to "find X".


It Depends on if you are speaking of VR specifically or Decking, they are not entirely the same, Anyone with a Decent Commlink and a few mods can access VR, but Decking is a bit more hardcore, Cyberdecks are highly illegal peices of gear for anyone outside an arcology to handle and even then it is typically left to the Local anti-hacker only.

Since you are asking more about the VR aspect, VR can be used in many ways legally, some people use it for Entertainment, full Dive style games are pretty popular during this time period, though most people run it in Cold Sim, a few "brave" souls might try running hot sim for the added danger. Others like the idea of Jacking into a drone and flying it around the city for a bit.

There are some other niche uses but most people are happy running AR and still being able to do quite a bit from their commlinks.

  • Are you saying also that VR can be accessed without a cyberdeck? How do people usually access it? – Thunderforge Aug 2 '17 at 3:46
  • in the world of shadowrun, almost all technology is always connected to the internet unless you get an OLD piece of tech that cant access the net, Accessing VR is about as easy as selecting a mode on your computer, once you enter VR you then in essence leave your meatspace body and end up in a new "world" depending on the setting and whatnot on your Commlink/Cyberdeck.you perceive the world around you based on your Reality Filter and can travel around Think of it like Tron or the Episode of Futurama where they all go into the internet. Different nodes have different appearances. – Tom Parr Aug 8 '17 at 21:52

Why does your boss drive a new Jaguar while you still have that 12-year-old clunker? Because he can.

The original reason for decking was the interface. Why learn to use a keyboard and a mouse when you can just plug yourself in? Who can remember all those commands and instructions? With cybernetics, it's like walking into your computer, finding the file you want, and projecting it onto the wall. Best of all, when you're done, there's no paperwork to clutter up your desk.

There is nowhere better suited for the Rule of Cool than business. Virtual reality looks great, and if it doesn't, you can change the skins instantly. Your clients will only see the wizware you want them to see. Real reality takes work, you have to solve problems and do maths and stuff.

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