"Not just a gamer, but an artist"
An inside look at Department of Media Study TA Sean Feiner
While sitting in the peaceful atrium in UB's Center For the Arts, few would expect to hear casual chatter about drag queens and fake mothers - especially from the mild-mannered Sean Feiner.
Feiner is a teaching assistant who co-teaches Gaming, Gender and Society in UB's Department of Media Study (DMS). The class focuses on social implications behind common video games and gender roles within them. Feiner's knowledge of gaming and his outlook on its impact on society have made him popular amongst students.
"[Feiner] is easy to talk to because we're not as far apart in age as [I am with] the professor," said Jayson Skiba, a senior media study major. "He knows so much about the games and is able to show me the other side of it."
Feiner said studying video games as serious objects is a completely new concept. His goal is to take students beneath the surface of how fun playing can be and show them how video games reflect the impact of our actions as a generation. Feiner considers himself a "gamer" - someone who plays video games rather frequently - and his experience in playing has led him to see these implications clearly.
He points out the way women are portrayed in Grand Theft Auto, the popular video game series that released its newest installment on Sept. 17. Women in this game are often prostitutes who serve no substantive purpose. Feiner believes this is a statement about gender equality and how it can never truly be reached.
His female students said they should be offended by this portrayal of women, but they play the game anyway.
Feiner, a Long Island native, started college as an undergraduate at Brown University in the engineering program. He hated it.
He described the experience as a "culture shock," and he knew engineering was not where he belonged. He wanted to pursue his passions for teaching and the arts by taking a step into a new field: the study of gaming.
"Games have diverse factions," he said. "But at the same time, they've always been a safe space for me."
But it's not all about games for Feiner.
He creates performance art that combines electronic music with theatrics, constructing an experience that goes beyond two-dimensional art. His last performance piece was a social commentary on the impact of television on society and the way it influences the lifestyles of viewers.
"I don't like things to be perfect, and that's why I like creating these performance pieces," Feiner said. "I can have creative freedom and enjoy making something knowing that the final product may not be perfect, but it's mine."
His piece, titled "gURLs not gIRLs (Waiting for Taco Bell)," is filled with personified technology characters like "WiFi" and a melodramatic drag queen - both played by Feiner.
He can design these pieces in a couple of weeks using basic technology and help from friends because of his work ethic and creative mind.
Feiner calls himself a "shy person" but is very comfortable when he is performing.
He also utilizes social media in his art, especially Twitter. For one particular project, Feiner created a satirical "mom's magazine" account that poked fun at the average suburban mother who uses the Internet.
Feiner started the satire project as independent work, but he now finds he is incorporating the idea in many other projects.
"When I was creating 'gURLS not gIRLs,' I knew I wanted to use many different characters and to incorporate elements of my past work into the project," Feiner said. "The 'mom's magazine' account fit into one part of the performance so well because she created a nice comic relief. I felt like I had to use it."
Josephine Anstey, the DMS professor who works with Feiner, explained the class they teach together is entirely new and partially Feiner's creation. She said he was instrumental in writing the syllabus for the class.
"The material he has chosen to include is challenging," Anstey said. "And because of his academic background, he has a good grasp of this sort of material. He's very open to new ideas and does a good job of putting those two ideas - the fun of gaming and the social implications behind them - together."
Feiner is studying to receive a master's of fine arts and a Ph.D. in teaching. He sees himself as a public school teacher in the future, but he never wants to give up doing art on the side.
"I like to think of teaching as more of a long-term project than a job," Feiner said.
He offers advice to struggling artists or students unsure of their path.
"Take advantage of the fact that so many tools are available," Feiner said. "Thirty years ago, the video recorder was a big deal; today, you can be a painter but also do coding on a computer. Also, make it an everyday practice. The idea of 'what is art?' is totally destabilized, making it an open field for interpretation. People shouldn't be so concerned about what defines an artist ... just be one."