A definition of the art game was first proposed by Professor Tiffany Holmes (School of the Art Institute of Chicago) in her 2003 paper for the Melbourne DAC Conference, "Arcade Classics Span Art? Current Trends in the Art Game Genre". Holmes defined the art game as "an interactive work, usually humorous, by a visual artist that does one or more of the following: challenges cultural stereotypes, offers meaningful social or historical critique, or tells a story in a novel manner." The paper stated that an art game must contain at least two of the following: " a defined way to win or experience success in a mental challenge,  passage through a series of levels (that may or may not be hierarchical),  a central character or icon that represents the player." This definition was narrowed by Rebecca Cannon in an October 2003 paper where she highlighted the competitive, goal-oriented nature of the genre in defining art games as "compris[ing] an entire, (to some degree) playable game... Art games are always interactive—and that interactivity is based on the needs of competing [...] Art games explore the game format primarily as a new mode for structuring narrative, cultural critique." In a 2015 article, Colombian video game theorist Carlos Díaz placed importance on the "reflection experience" as an integral aspect of the art game. This experience can pertain to a variety of cultural avenues, but it transcends the medium and its structure.
Within the topic of the art game, further subdivisions have been proposed. In her 2003 paper, Holmes identified two common art game types as the "feminist art game" (an art game that generates thinking about gender and typecasting), and the "retro-styled art game" (an art game that juxtaposes low-resolution graphics with academic or theoretical content, and that creatively subverts the format of an arcade classic to support a conceptual creative agenda). In 2005, art theorist Pippa Tshabalala née Stalker broadly defined the art game as "a video game, normally PC as opposed to console based, that generally but not exclusively explores social or political issues through the medium of video games." She proposed two different categorical schemes to further subdivide the genre by theme and by type. Subdividing by theme, Stalker defined "aesthetic art games" to include "games that deal with using the game medium to express an artistic purpose," and she defined "political" or "agenda-based art games" as art games that "have some sort of ulterior motive other than aesthetics" and whose basis is in "using the medium of the computer games to bring an issue to the public's, or at least the art world's, attention in order to attract support and understanding for a cause." Subdividing by type, Stalker identified the "art mod", the "physical manifestation art game" (the player is involved physically in the game, often experiencing physical consequences, such as pain, for their actions), "machinima", and "3D real-time [art] game" (an art game that displays all the characteristics of a complete level-based commercial game, both on the programming and commercial side). The identification of art mods and machinima as forms of the art game conflicts with Cannon's definition of the art mod that highlights the non-interactive and non-competitive nature of these forms of media.
Distinctions are drawn in describing the art game as a genre compared to traditional video game genres (such as the platformer or first-person shooter). Rather than describing the game on a surface level, descriptions focus on the artistic intent, as well as the execution and implementation of the gameplay. For instance, Bethesda's 2008 release Fallout 3 is considered to be a role-playing game with first-person shooter elements, but it could also be considered to have elements consistent with art games—it implements moral player choices for the sole purpose of provoking emotion or thought in the player. There are several recent instances of video games that similarly involve the characteristics of art games, such as Braid and Undertale. Games like these aren't necessarily created or marketed under the classification of "art game", but are still created for artistic purposes that transcend their respective structures. The potentials and limitations of the medium are increasingly discovered as the video game industry develops, therefore resulting in the recent popularity of art game elements. If nothing else, the genre can be seen as a means to push the medium to its conceptual limit.
Since the development of these early definitions, art theorists have emphasized the role of artistic intent  (of author or curator) and further definitions have emerged from both the art world and the video game world that draw a clear distinction between the "art game" and its predecessor, "video game art". At the core of the matter lies an intersection between art and the video game. Easily confused with its often non-interactive sibling art form video game art, and the concept of video games as an art form (irrespective of artistic intent), the essential position that art games take in relation to video games is analogous with the position that art film takes in relation to film. ACM SIGGRAPH opened an online exhibit "The Aesthetics of Gameplay" in March 2014, featuring 45 independently developed games selected via a nomination process, where the mechanics of gameplay are, in part, tied to the visuals and audio of the game. Greg Garvey, the curator of this exhibit, compared this to the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk where the work attempts to encompass other art forms, though as Garvey comments, the "merger of interaction with the aesthetics" drives these games beyond this concept.
"Art game" versus "game art"
Due to the contemporaneous improvement of graphic capabilities (and other aspects of game art design) with the trend toward recognition of games as art and the increases in video game art production and art game releases, discussions of these topics are often closely interleaved. This has led to the drawing of a number of critical distinctions between the "art game" and the various kinds of "game art".
In drawing a distinction between games with artistic imagery and art games, commentators have compared the art to sculpture and have emphasized the concept of artistic intent in the creation of the art game. This difference has been described by Justin McElroy of Joystiq as "the same [as that] between a sculpture and a building. Though a building/game can be aesthetically pleasing, an art game/sculpture is using its very structure to produce some kind of reaction." This same comparison has been used by Jenova Chen in an interview discussing art games and the prominence of non-games to the artistic gamer community. Along with expanding on the notion of art games as comparable to architecture in a 2010 interview with Nora Young for Spark, Jim Munroe stated that whereas video games such as the "art game" are shifting in the direction of the "high arts" within the realm of art generally, traditionally video games have occupied a position in the "cultural gutter" (making up the "low arts").
Another key distinction that has been made between art games and games with artistic imagery (and indeed all games viewed as art) is that art games are intended as artistic creations from the outset whereas traditional games are often commercially motivated and play-oriented. Thus the "game" portion of "game art" is merely the means to an artistic end. This has been expanded by some commentators to include the artistic intention of the curator as well as the original creator. This distinction also brings into focus the concept of "serious play." Graham Coulter-Smith of Southampton Solent University defines serious play as "a mode of communication that is not instrumental and not overbearingly focused on the linguistic model," a communicative medium that involves the concrete action of the participants rather than abstracts such as language. This holds significant implications for an artistic medium, as it facilitates communication of meaning through increasingly more empathetic and concrete means. Unlike other media, players of games must expend not only time but effort—in the form of problem-solving or the application of timed reflexes. This participatory element demonstrates that adding effort as an element in an art piece results in a higher degree of emotional investment, and therefore a higher potential impact of artistic intent on the participant.
In distinguishing between art games and video game art, the elements of interactivity and often competition (or goals) are frequently emphasized. Because art games are games and because games are interactive, definitions for the art game tend to require interactivity whereas video game art can be either interactive or non-interactive. Beyond this, the questions of whether competition, rules, and goals are intrinsic to games and to what extent "play" is even definable in the context of an art game raise thorny problems for critics who compare a game like chess to a game like Sim City and who question the playfulness of a game like Escape From Woomera. A number of commentators have included the concept of competition as part of the definition of the art game to distinguish it from video game art. An example of such a definition is offered by Professor John Sharp: "Artgames are games in the formal sense of maintaining the experiential and formal characteristics of videogames—rules, game mechanics, goals, etc.—as an expressive form in the same way other artists might use painting, film or literature." Thus game art pieces can be seen to employ traditional (non-art) games as the canvas or artistic medium whereas art games employ the formal qualities of the game as the artistic medium.
"Art game" versus "art mod"
The idea of a distinction between art games and artistic modifications to existing games is one that several commentators including Rebecca Cannon and Matteo Bittanti have found useful in further discussing the related topics. Using Tiffany Holmes' original definition of the "art game" as a starting point, Cannon emphasized that whereas art games "always comprise an entire, (to some degree) playable game" and may be made from scratch, art mods by definition "always modify or reuse an existing computer game but only rarely include a reward system, and if so, only when of thematic relevance." Likewise, whereas interactivity and playability are defining characteristics of the art game, they are often of no consequence for the art mod.
For Cannon, the nature of a work as a modification is not alone determinative of the question of whether the work is an art game or an art mod. Some modifications are "art games" despite being mods according to her definition. In addressing the potential for confusion on this point, she has stated that at the most basic level, "art games explore the game format primarily as a new mode for structuring narrative and/or cultural critique, whilst art mods employ game media attributes for extensive artistic expressions." Thus, whereas art games explore the game format, art mods explore game media and whereas art mods always exploit existing games, art games often replace them. Fluxus scholar Celia Pearce describes the art mod or "patch" as an "interventional strategy," referencing the Dadaist concept. She argues that the art mod is an example of this pseudo-vandalism involving subversion and reflection within the cultural context of video games.
Other art theorists including Pippa Tshabalala have rejected this narrow definition of the "art game" and have instead adopted a broad definition under the theory that the concept of the game is not limited to systems where the author has created rules and goals, but that games emerge whenever the observer self-limits play experience. Thus, observers experiencing the Jodi art mod, SOD (a modification of Wolfenstein 3D), can experience it as an art game as soon as they decide that their goal will be to progress to the next level.